Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin is obsessive about his sticks and once bet his truck on a game of H-O-R-S-E.
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WASHINGTON, D.C – On March 16, the day after the Washington Capitals clinched their 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs berth thanks to his overtime goal, Alex Ovechkin rode onto Capitol Hill and lobbied members of Congress. He had come on behalf of Bauer, his equipment provider, which was helping drive a bill that would allow medical deductions for athletic expenses. Basically, he was the famous face brought along to meet U.S. Senators and Representatives, a bi-partisan persuader for a bi-partisan issue.
Ovechkin was not the only sports celebrity wandering the bricked halls of the Russell Building that afternoon—Carl Lewis, Steve Garvey and Herschel Walker performed similar tasks for the same cause—but it is hard to imagine any of them attracting the same amount of attention. As Ovechkin boarded the in-house tram to ride between the Senate and House, a security guard hollered the Capitals’ war cry, “Rock the Red!” At least five different congressional aides claimed someone they knew was Ovechkin’s biggest fan. So, apparently, was the nephew of Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “I’m auntie of the year,” she said, posing for a picture.
The last stop took Ovechkin into the office of Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), the bill’s sponsor. A trophy case was filled with sporting memorabilia and a stuffed buffalo head was mounted on the wall. As Ovechkin sat down, talk turned to the Capitals. Comparing the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the other local professional teams, Thune called them “the bright spot.” Then, as though Ovechkin didn’t already know this, he added, “Expectations around here are sky-high.”
This was Ovechkin’s world in a nutshell—wildly popular, particularly inside the Beltway, and yet dogged by pressures the longer Washington goes without advancing past the second round, which hasn’t happened since 1997-98. Now 30 years old and in his 11th season, Ovechkin was profiled for SI’s NHL postseason preview. I spent roughly an hour talking with him at the Capitals’ team hotel in Pittsburgh during a late-March road trip, covering topics ranging from his recent dinner with Wayne Gretzky to his relationship with head coach Barry Trotz to his burning desire to win the Stanley Cup. Those can be found in the article. Here, however, are some other items of interest from my time with Ovechkin and his teammates.
The special relationship between Ovechkin and his sticks
Among the crowd accompanying Ovechkin at Congress was Bauer representative Tim Parr, whose territory includes Washington. D.C.. Besides the Capitals superstar, no one knows more about what Parr calls "the most talked-about piece of equipment in the NHL”—Ovechkin’s stick.
Ovechkin switched to Bauer from CCM five years ago, and during their time together Parr has learned that this generation’s greatest goal-scorer simply operates differently than most. “The Rain Man of hockey sticks,” Parr says. At Bauer’s factories, the average NHL stick carries a “tolerance rating” of plus or minus five; in other words, a stick that calls for a 100 flex will pass if it’s between 95 and 105. Ovechkin’s margin for error on his 87-flex blades, on the other hand, is less than one. The reason? He can sense when his stick moves even the slightest out of balance. If the thickness of the shaft is changes based on one added graphic or decal build-up, he’ll know.
“[Ovechkin's demands are] definitely at the highest level, but I think that comes with knowledge as he goes through sticks,” Parr says. “Probably when he was younger he wasn’t as high maintenance, but now he’s at his peak. He knows where the spots are. He’ll move his bottom hand up and down the stick to make sure he feels each zone has the right amount of flex. He goes through that checks and balance.
“Anything that’s like a thousandth of a whatever off, he can’t feel that. The minute you assume he doesn’t feel it, he understands it’s thicker and that’s all you have to go by. How do you go back and tell him that he’s not right, when he’s right?”
The next morning after Ovechkin’s trip to Congress, Parr visited the Capitals at their practice. He handed Ovechkin a new box of sticks, which Ovechkin unwrapped like “Christmas morning.” He flexed the blades to test their strength and offered Parr a fist-bump in approval.
Later, he called with another request. Could Parr send two Bauer hockey nets, 100 pucks and several sheets of fake ice? Ovechkin wanted to shoot in the driveway at his house and the old netting had frayed. “If you can imagine a guy at his age and his stature, most guys aren’t going home to shoot pucks,” Parr says. “I can tell you none of them have nets at their house, unless they’ve got kids. He’s got professional goals being set up in his driveways with fake ice boards to shoot pucks.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov on how to get a good table
“I usually call always and they say we’re completely busy," Washington's 23-year-old Russian forward says about making restaurant reservations. "I say, ‘Okay, what about if I bring Alex Ovechkin?’ They say, ‘Alex Ovechkin? Okay, anytime.’ Then we get very nice table. It works everywhere. But he never uses his name. He never books the table, never calls to say it’s Alex Ovechkin. He try to stay away from his celebrity stuff or whatever, stay same like we are, like normal people, not feeling like superstar.”
Brooks Orpik on Ovechkin’s uniqueness
“What I marvel at is how he can wear new pairs of skates and new pairs of gloves every game. It takes most of us a week to get comfortable and he’s literally just pulling them right out of the box. The rest of us would be falling over the place. I sit next to him and I say, ‘Are you going to wear those?’ ‘Oh yeah. Why not?’
“I don't know what I’d call him. There’s just not one guy in the league like him. I know my perception is a lot different now than what it was before I came. He’s a fun guy to be around.
That time Ovechkin bet his car in a game of H-O-R-S-E
Former Capitals GM George McPhee has two stories Ovechkin that he particularly enjoys telling.
The first involves McPhee’s usual Sunday-morning bike rides, a 20-mile loop that took him out to the Potomac River. One weekend during Ovechkin’s rookie season, when he was living at McPhee’s house to help transition into American life, McPhee woke up, had a solid breakfast, stretched and readied for the workout. Ovechkin, on the other hand, “rolls out of bed about five minutes until seven, drinks a Coke and says, ‘Let’s go.’” McPhee fancied himself in decent shape, but Ovechkin crushed him on the bike ride. According to journalist Gare Joyce’s biography of Ovechkin, by the time McPhee returned to his house, Ovechkin had long since arrived and was already playing street hockey with McPhee’s children.
The second story? Well, better let McPhee take it from here.
“He was playing basketball in our driveway once and our next-door neighbor was a Division I college basketball player in her day,” McPhee says. “She came over and challenged him to a game of H-O-R-S-E. He smiled and said O.K., and after a few shots, he said, ‘What are we playing for?’ And she said, ‘That’s a nice truck you pulled up in.’ He smiled and said O.K.. She beat him and he went and got the keys and handed them to her. He was serious. And she says, ‘No, no, no, no, no, you can keep that.’ He wasn’t happy when he lost but he was respectful and went and got his keys and handed them over.”
McPhee’s takeaway about Ovechkin (who didn’t actually lose his car)?
“I said this is a good kid who needs a little more experience over here."
Ovechkin on the Capitals' balance
“It’s helped me. It’s helped me, it’s helped Backie [center Nicklas Backstrom]. It’s not only two players on the team. It’s 24, 25 players on the team. Everyone has to be on the same page, has to know exactly what to do to get success. You can’t think differently only than winning. I don’t think about anything but winning. I think about the win. And I think this is our year."
“We have to go win. We have to be ready for pressure. We have to fight through some maybe injuries, maybe all the different things. Our goaltending is the best in the league. Our defensive side, we have skill, we have home-stay D, we have speed. Now forwards, four lines can play with anybody in the league. (NOTE: This season Washington had six 20-goal scorers for the first time in six years, ranked second in goals against per game, and went 17-8-5 when Ovechkin did not record a point.) We have to be together for that two months, two months and a half. We have to be together, be on the same page, be on the same boat, be in one car. We just have to go forward and don’t go right or left. We have a goal. We have to take this goal.”
On what became of the sheep he received for his 30th birthday
“She’s still alive. Still alive at my country house (in Russia).”
GM Brian MacLellan on Ovechkin’s personality
“He’s had periods where a lot of pressure has been put on him and it’s gotten serious for him, but I think naturally he always wants to get back to being playful. There’s a part of him that’s really serious. I think he hides that more than the playful part, whereas other guys are the opposite. I think it’s harder for him to show the serious part. He wants to win. He’s worried about where he fits in the game and he knows a championship will help. There is a seriousness to him. When we lose, he gets serious. I think that’s harder to show for him.”
The other surprise visitor at Ovechkin’s dinner with Wayne Gretzky
Our magazine story opened with Ovechkin eating at Nobu, a swanky Japanese restaurant in Malibu, with The Great One. The dinner had come together two days after Ovechkin scored his 500th career goal and the Capitals played a video of various congratulatory messages, ending with Gretzky's. This inspired Ovechkin to ask, through Washington director of communications Sergey Kocharov, who previously worked for Gretzky in Arizona, if the icon would meet with him while the Capitals had a night off during a road trip to California.
It was a crowded group. Ovechkin’s fiancée, Nastya Shubskaya, came along. So did Gretzky’s wife, Janet, and his son, Ty, as well as his brother, Glenn, and one more friend. And midway through the evening, the table was visited by actor Alan Thicke and his singer/son, Robin. Alan, who picked the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup, told them that he was a big Ovechkin fan.
Ovi and Kobe
Not long before tip-off at a Lakers-Wizards game at Verizon Center in D.C., Ovechkin was sitting near courtside, eating a hot dog. Across from him, Kobe Bryant was warming up by shooting free throws. Noticing Ovechkin munching away in the stands, Bryant pointed at him, as if to say hello. “Of all the people who was around, he saw me and pointed at me,” Ovechkin says. “I remember this all my life. When something happen like that, you enjoy it and you remember it.”
During the same road trip when he dined with Gretzky, Ovechkin went to a Lakers game at Staples Center and met Bryant, who wasn’t playing that night, during halftime. (The evening also included Lakers president and part-owner Jeanie Buss asking for a selfie.) At Ovechkin’s request, Bryant autographed a white Lakers jersey and pair of shoes for him. “To one of the greatest,” one shoe said. “To Alex, one of the all-time greats!” the jersey read.
“I’m going to tell my kids and my family I saw how he played and I have his shoes and jersey,” Ovechkin says.