- Alex Ovechkin is finally more than the Great 8. Watch out, Washington (you too, Moscow): the party is just beginning.
For once, the weight has become too much for him to bear. Lugging the Stanley Cup like a milkmaid with her yoke can work for a bit, but soon Alex Ovechkin’s shoulder muscles begin to ache. Sweat dribbles from beneath his 2018 Washington Capitals championship cap, smelling faintly of hops and barley. “Right now we exhausted,” he says, handing the 35-pound trophy to a team official, and he struts ahead—unburdened at last.
Wearing a white number 8 baseball jersey with a red C stitched on the front, Ovechkin rounds a corner in the bowels of Nationals Park, greeted by rousing applause from the stadium’s grounds crew. Moments earlier, surrounded by teammates and coaches on the mound, he had airmailed the initial first pitch over Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer’s head before requesting—and connecting on—a mulligan. “He wanted another shot,” Scherzer explained with a shrug, unclear whether that meant opportunity or vodka.
In any case, the second first pitch was perfectly symbolic. It took the Capitals and their captain 10 playoff tries together before finally capturing the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, snapping D.C.’s 26-year major pro sports title drought and drowning every asterisk affixed to Ovechkin’s career résumé in bottomless brut. “I think my legacy, you know, everybody going to remember me now, for sure,” he says, ducking into an elevator and heading toward a suite where the party will continue on this Saturday afternoon. “That’s something special. That’s something cool.”
Thirty-six hours after clinching against the expansion Golden Knights, Ovechkin has barely slept beyond the flight home from Las Vegas, when he dozed off big-spooning the chalice. Later tonight, Ovechkin will bring the Cup to his McLean, Va., mansion and into bed with his pregnant wife, Nastya, who is due with their first child in late August. He chuckles when it is suggested that Ovi 2.0 should be baptized in the Cup bowl, but he does not entirely rule this out given his current state of stupefaction. “Still can’t believe it,” he says. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to take a couple more days to realize.”
Ovechkin plans to rewatch all of Game 5 sometime soon. But for now he has only seen celebration clips from the 4–3 victory on social media, most of which feature his bone-rattling roars. “Crazy moment,” he says. “Happiest guy.” As his agent, David Abrutyn, later relayed, the scene of Ovechkin taking the Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was almost identical to the time Mark Messier shook with joy upon breaking the Rangers’ ringless streak in 1994. (Seriously. YouTube it.) “I wanted to win with the Caps so badly,” Ovechkin says. “I only won championship back in the Russian League [with Dynamo Moscow during the 2004–05 lockout]. Stanley Cup is something different. You can’t explain how tough it is. But how sweet is this?”
The sweetest, really. Twenty-four years ago Messier and the Rangers partied so hard through Manhattan that the Hockey Hall of Fame established its Keeper of the Cup position as a protective measure. Within a few hours the Capitals were well on their way to joining them in Lord Stanley lore. Since taking possession at T-Mobile Arena, the Caps have already paraded the trophy around the MGM Grand casino floor and onto the dance stage at the Vegas nightclub Hakkasan. After the Nationals game, Ovechkin & Co. would be spotted making snow angels in a public fountain, performing keg stands from the silver bowl, posing at a Georgetown restaurant with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump and leading what felt like all of Washington in throaty, sloppy renditions of “We Are the Champions.”
Ovechkin did not miss any of the Capitals’ 106 regular season and postseason contests—11 more than he has ever played—yet somehow he seemed to gain energy as the mileage added up. (His 497:26 playoff ice time led all forwards.) He spent off-nights battling virtual foes in Fortnite, searing meats on his grill and fooling around with his black Labrador, Blake.
Finishing the postseason with 15 goals, tied with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (in 2009) for the most over the past two decades, Ovechkin joined Evgeni Malkin as the only Russian-born winners of the Conn Smythe Trophy. He steered the Capitals through what coach Barry Trotz calls “an absolute mental mindf---” of a postseason: Washington became the first team ever to face deficits in all four rounds and then clinch each series on the road.
Against Vegas, this involved stomaching a fluky Game 1 loss in which Ovechkin had an assist but only managed two shots on goal. “The whole atmosphere, we were a little shocked,” he says, eyes widening for emphasis. “But after that, we turned the button on, and we crushed it.” Indeed, few forces seemed capable of knocking off the Knights ... until Ovechkin stormed the castle in all his gray-haired, GIF-able glory. “I don’t know where it came from,” general manager Brian MacLellan said after Game 5. “But all of a sudden he took charge.”
Jamie Clarke bills himself as a professional adventurer, though a more accurate title would be general outdoor badass. Now 50, the Calgary native has crossed the Arabian Peninsula’s Rub’ al Khali desert, summited the highest peak on each of the seven continents and scaled Mount Everest twice. After hearing Clarke speak at a Hockey Canada event last June, Trotz invited him to spend several days at the Capitals’ training camp and relay his expedition experiences. The metaphor couldn’t have been more obvious.
As Clarke detailed in a lengthy slideshow presentation, he had endured two failed attempts before finally conquering Everest. (See?) In 1991 subzero temperatures and triple-digit wind speeds sapped morale and forced Clarke’s team to turn back with only 3,000 feet left. Three years later and a hundred yards from the finish line, a fellow climber began suffering altitude sickness, fell unconscious and required rescue. Only after trying again, in ’97—and then again in 2010—did Clarke succeed.
Listening from his front-row seat in the dark film room at the team’s practice facility, Ovechkin was gripped. Over the following days he would periodically track down Clarke—on the bus, around the rink, at team meals—to address several lingering curiosities: How do climbers train? What do they eat? How are injuries treated? Where is the toilet?
“Very inquisitive,” Clarke says. “He was really rolling up his sleeves.” In particular, one question struck Clarke as deeply revealing: “When you didn’t make it to the top,” Ovechkin wondered, “how did you deal with that disappointment?”
At the time the Capitals were still saddled by what Clarke calls “the Penguin-shaped monkey on their backs,” a wicked creature that had fattened to an all-time weight last spring, when Pittsburgh again eliminated Washington in the second round. “It was miserable,” one front-office official recalls. “A lot of finger-pointing about what’s going on.” As usual, blame largely fell upon Ovechkin, who scored a career-low 16 goals at even strength during the 2016–17 regular season and ended the playoffs with costly errors on both Penguins tallies in Game 7.
Unable to represent Russia at the world championships due to a hamstring injury, Ovechkin instead decamped to his beachside Miami condo and detoxed from hockey, only glancing at the score when Pittsburgh and Crosby clinched their second straight title. “You play for your team,” he says, “and when your team is out, why you have to watch the game?”
A few weeks later, following a raucous wedding weekend back in Russia highlighted by some shirtless dancing and a tea set gifted by personal friend Vladimir Putin, Ovechkin welcomed an envoy from the District. Trotz had traveled to Russia to see his son Tyson, who teaches English several hours outside Moscow, and alerted his other Russian contact.
Before leaving on his honeymoon in the Maldives, Ovechkin scooped up Trotz in his white Mercedes G-Wagon and steered northwest, pointing out childhood landmarks—first apartment building, first school, first ice rink—along the way.
Eventually the pair reached one of Ovechkin’s favorite local restaurants, where they sat in a curtained section, sipped beers, discussed married life, and ate “some giant pierogi thing,” Trotz says. Midway through, the coach arrived at the main reason he had called on his star player. “Everybody thinks you can’t do it anymore,” he told Ovechkin, referencing a lineup of Canadian TV talking heads suggesting that the Capitals should explore trading their captain. “You’ve got to evolve. You’ve got to become the athlete that everyone expects you to be.”
On the one hand, Ovechkin will always remain the same genetic marvel who crushes Coca-Cola cans and devours spaghetti slathered in cream sauce as a pregame meal. (Contrary to breathless playoff reporting, Ovechkin doesn’t eat the chicken parm included in his usual delivery from local restaurant Mamma Lucia’s but continues to order it out of superstition. “Why change?” he says. “Do the exact same thing. Keep pounding the rock.”)
But he has made some necessary tweaks—fewer Red Bulls, more micronutrient-enriched smoothies, for instance. Thanks to a cardio-heavy summer regimen, featuring sprint workouts at a northern Virginia high school track, Ovechkin also reported to camp better conditioned than he had in years, according to Capitals strength coach Mark Nemish. The result was a supersonic blast from the past: Ovechkin became the first player in 100 years to score consecutive hat tricks in the first two games of the season, and he ultimately finished 2017–18 one shy of reaching 50 for the eighth time while winning his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy.
“He was on a mission,” Trotz says. “It was almost like, ‘I’m going to set the stage, I’m still great. And all you haters out there, I’m back.’”
On April 16, facing a two-game deficit after suffering consecutive OT losses at home to start the first round, the Capitals flew to Columbus with their Stanley Cup hopes suddenly on life support. “Yeah, we were disappointed, we were mad,” Ovechkin says. “But we still believed.”
Upon arriving at the downtown Hilton, Trotz pulled Ovechkin aside for another one-on-one. Opening a laptop on the couch in his suite, the coach queued video clips detailing areas where Ovechkin could have more of a defensive impact. As Trotz explained, blocking shots or making smart exit passes would help Ovechkin gain “street cred” with his teammates. “There’s a level of commitment that people need to see, especially from you, that will pull them into the fight,” Trotz told him. “They’ll go, ‘S---, he’s doing that? I’ve got to do that too.’”
One night later, thanks to an arcade pinball goal by center Lars Eller in double OT, the Capitals captured Game 3 against the Blue Jackets and closed them out in six. Shaking that Penguin-shaped monkey took about 5 1⁄2 minutes longer, climaxing when Ovechkin hustled to coax a turnover on a neutral zone backcheck and fed center Evgeny Kuznetsov for the breakaway series-clincher in overtime of Game 6.
All the while Ovechkin emerged as a vocal leader on the bench, offering more positive words of encouragement that assistant coach Todd Reirden says “got him over the hump with players.” Former Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig, now the organization’s professional development coach, cites a moment from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay, when Ovechkin wrapped his arm around rookie Jakub Vrana and whispered advice. “That’s a side of Ovi I haven’t seen,” says Kolzig. “He’s doing everything that a captain is supposed to do.”
As Ovechkin took his victory lap in Vegas, only one captaincy obligation remained. The line of celebratory succession had been plotted before Game 5, when Ovechkin told Nicklas Backstrom to be ready to take the Cup from him “because we’ve been since Day One together.” Indeed, it was a 20-year-old Ovechkin who announced the Swedish center’s selection fourth overall at the 2006 NHL draft in Vancouver; it was Backstrom who fed Ovechkin on the power play for the Capitals’ second goal in the clincher; and it was Ovechkin who escorted Backstrom around the ice, two hands each clasped onto the trophy. “It was awesome to share this moment with him,” Backstrom says. “To all the people who doubted us, stick it up their asses.”
And yet it is telling that Washington finally reached its summit with Ovechkin and Backstrom skating on separate lines for the first time since 2011–12, only spending 36:54 together at even strength over 24 playoff games. (The former was centered by Kuznetsov, who led the postseason with 32 points, while the latter anchored sturdy veteran T.J. Oshie and the speedster Vrana.) Internal tensions had run high after the Pittsburgh loss last spring, leading to discussions about whether the Capitals would consider soliciting trade offers for one of their core pieces. Trotz explains the calculus like this: “Do you break the band up, or do you say, let’s stick with it one more time and maybe we can get a record deal?”
Ultimately the Capitals stayed pat and went platinum by adding backup performers such as winger Devante Smith-Pelly (goals in Games 3, 4 and 5 against Vegas) and second-pair defenseman Michal Kempny (17:42 playoff time on ice). Ovechkin singles out youngsters like Vrana (“He was struggling at one point, but you can see he plays unbelievable”), Andre Burakovsky (“How he’s grown up as a player”) and fellow Russians Kuznetsov and defenseman Dmitry Orlov (“Those guys stepping up big time”). Splitting their superstars also provided greater lineup balance, allowing Trotz to hand Ovechkin offensive-minded matchups while delegating heavier checking assignments to Backstrom’s line.
Meanwhile, a tradition developed among the longtime friends. After each playoff victory this spring, Backstrom and Ovechkin would come together in the locker room and recite the number of wins remained before they could hoist the Stanley Cup.
After beating Columbus in Game 3: “Fifteen more.”
After eliminating Pittsburgh in Game 6: “Eight more.”
After shutting out Tampa Bay in Games 6 and 7: “Five more . . . . Four more.”
After clinching on June 7, they embraced and screamed, simply, “We did it!”
In 1974, before the inaugural season of their expansion Capitals, the team owners, Abe and Irene Pollin, flew to Moscow in search of talent. They held several meetings with local hockey officials, offering $1 million for the rights to sign two players, but they ultimately returned Stateside empty-handed. “That was my husband’s dream,” Irene, 93, says today. “He wanted to be one of the first owners to bring back a Russian player.”
Forty-four years later—and almost two decades after the Pollins sold the team to AOL magnate Ted Leonsis—Irene beamed in her Bethesda, Md., home as Ovechkin became the first Russian captain to win the Stanley Cup. “It’s almost like he can push a button and all this energy comes out,” she says. In that way Ovechkin functions as a 235-pound counterweight to old stereotypes. “Our experiences with Russian players for so many years were that they were tight-lipped, robotic and didn’t show any emotion,” says Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, who drafted Ovechkin in 2004 while running the Capitals’ front office. “Alex’s passion and intensity and exuberance is at a level that most players rarely get to.”
Most? There was a reason NBC glued its cameras to Ovechkin during the playoffs: No one emotes like the Great Elate. When Kuznetsov scored against Pittsburgh, Ovechkin closed his eyes, tilted back his head and sighed in relief. Upon seeing goalie Braden Holtby’s miraculous backdoor save on Vegas winger Alex Tuch in Game 2 of the finals, an astonished Ovechkin buried his head in his gloves à la Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone. And as the final seconds ticked down during Game 5, Ovechkin prayed on the bench, unable to look any longer.
As the celebration shifted to a private ballroom at the Mandarin Oriental, several partygoers approached Ovechkin and offered some version of the same history lesson: “Congratulations! Did you know Steve Yzerman won his first Cup at 32?” A keen student of hockey greatness, Ovechkin was already aware. Previously ringless through 11 postseason trips, the former Red Wings captain—and current Lightning GM—went on to capture consecutive titles and three in six years. Ovechkin hopes that similar floodgates open for Washington. “Only a couple days since the last game, but I think everybody [is] ready for another run,” he says. “You get a taste of your dream, you just want more and more, you know?”
There will be time for that later. For now there are beers to chug, fountains to invade, a city to lug along for the ride. A full half-hour after the Nationals game ends, Ovechkin finally exits the suite, last to leave just like on the ice in Vegas. To his left, a few teammates head toward the elevators. On the opposite end of the hallway, a thick horde of fans is clamoring for his attention. Mulling over these options, Ovechkin turns right. As two nervous security guards hustle to catch up, he approaches the crowd and does not stop. Spreading his arms wide, he walks straight into the middle, swallowed by a hundred hugs, a champion embraced in full.