Like a magnum of Dom Perignon on a shelf of package-store plonk, a discouraged Alexander Ovechkin stood among his Washington Capitals teammates on a late November night in the visitors' locker room at Madison Square Garden. Minutes earlier the Capitals had finally succumbed to the New York Rangers in a 15-round shootout that was about as long as According to Jim but far more entertaining. Having missed Washington's first shootout shot, snapping a personal streak of 4 for 4, the team's star had had ample time to brood. When quizzed about his deke, his shoulder-dip and the shot that clattered off Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist's glove, Ovechkin blurted a four-letter word that he surely didn't pick up from the copies of The Hockey News his agent used to send to Moscow after Ovechkin was drafted No. 1 in June 2004. Then he added, "The ice was terrible, but I wanted to get the puck up more, and that was a great play by Lundqvist. My mistake."
In a pithy 10 seconds, that was the essential Ovechkin: accountable, candid, colloquial. You certainly wouldn't hear the NHL's other glam rookie, the circumspect Sidney Crosby, toss out a public postgame obscenity.
Now this is not another referendum on which first-year phenom is better. The comparisons between Crosby, a magical 18-year-old surrounded by accomplished scorers on the slothful Pittsburgh Penguins, and Ovechkin, a 20-year-old jewel on a team brimming with effort but light on talent, are facile and not terribly enlightening. Playmaker versus scorer, conduit versus steamroller, Magic versus Bird, yada yada yada versus blah blah blah. As Ovechkin said, in his improving English, over dinner the night before his Garden debut, "Sometimes I think about Crosby, and sometimes I don't think about Crosby. Right now I don't think about him because he is he and I am I." Perfect.
Ovechkin is better measured against players such as Dale Hawerchuk, Steve Yzerman, Paul Kariya, Rick Nash and, yes, Wayne Gretzky, who as NHL rookies similarly parachuted into egregious teams and were cast as franchise cornerstones from their first shifts. Some of these estimable players were indeed building blocks for a championship, the rest Tinkertoys. Ovechkin had 24 goals through Monday, 16 more than the next Capital, and had figured in 45% of his team's goals. In context his 46 points are exceptional, but years hence Ovechkin will be judged not by whether he arm-wrestles the Calder Trophy from Crosby (who had 19 goals and 43 points) but by whether he can carry the Capitals, buried in last place in the Southeast Division, to respectability and beyond.
This is uncharted territory for a Russian. None of the highly coveted Russian players drafted since the early 1990s has become the pivotal figure who turns dross into Stanley Cup silver. (Run down the list: Sergei Fedorov was immensely valuable but not the key figure in the Detroit Red Wings' revival. Pavel Bure came close with the 1993--94 runner-up Vancouver Canucks, but he joined a 96-point team as a rookie and, in any case, was not a heart-and-soul guy. The expansion Ottawa Senators' efforts to build around center Alexei Yashin were disastrous.) But if no Russian has been able to carry his team to a title, well, no Russian plays quite like Ovechkin, a righthanded-shooting left wing who combines great speed, dazzling creativity and a willingness to go through defensemen as well as around them. He is the Russian Evolution.
"Pavel Bure in Mark Messier's body," says Capitals general manager George McPhee of his 6'2", 216-pound runaway locomotive, who wallpapered the New Jersey Devils' 6'4", 215-pound defenseman Colin White with the most thunderous hit of the season on Nov. 11. Atlanta Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk has a similar skill set, but as veteran Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig noted, "Alex plays harder than Kovalchuk. [Is Ovechkin] the most talented guy I've ever played with? Yep. That's because he uses his talent to the fullest all the time. [Former Cap Jaromir] Jagr was obviously very talented, but there were nights he didn't show up. Jags didn't have the speed and the edge this guy has."
Not that any goal on a team that ranks 25th in the league in offense is insignificant, but Ovechkin scores big ones. In the first 37 games of the season, six of his goals were Washington's first of the game, nine gave his team a lead and two were game-winners. His NHL-high five shootout goals were delivered with his signature lifting of his left leg as he barrels toward the net. (He's the dog, you're the hydrant.) Ovechkin, who was riding a six-game goal-scoring streak, has not bleached the Russian influence from his game (he is more one-on-one than give-and-go), but his virtuosity is almost matter-of-fact, not puck-hog selfish. "If we had anybody who could get him the puck off the wall," said one member of the organization after watching the other Caps handle the puck on the power play as if it were a hand grenade, "he wouldn't be getting a point a game but three points a game."
Last spring Ovechkin won the Superleague championship with Dynamo Moscow, a team stacked with lockout talent--the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk, the Boston Bruins' Sergei Samsonov and the Los Angeles Kings' Alexander Frolov, among others--that was conspicuously more formidable than that of Washington, whose payroll has dipped to around $23 million. Ovechkin could have stayed home and played for about double the $984,200 base salary he will receive this season. (Indeed, Dynamo insists he should have stayed in Russia. In another skirmish in the ongoing transfer-fee dispute between the NHL and the Russian federation, Dynamo in November sued Ovechkin in U.S. district court, claiming they still had his rights, a case that remains unresolved. The Capitals contend that Dynamo has no legitimate claim on Ovechkin, who said, "Dynamo is just making trouble.")
Unlike earlier generations of Russians who were lured to the NHL first by freedom and, later, by ready wealth, Ovechkin came simply to prove himself in the highest-caliber hockey league. His mother, Tatiana, was a two-time gold medalist in Olympic basketball, during the "Evil Empire" era--she won in 1976 and '80--but her son is impervious to the irony that he works less than two miles from the White House. "Washington's beautiful city," Ovechkin says. "Lots of memorials. But [that's] not for me. I like staying home. Relaxing at all times. And going to rink and being with the guys. When I come here, I was little bit nervous. New team. New language. But now it's like I'm here five years."
Although viscerally proud of his country--early in the season he wrote russia in Cyrillic on a dressing-room grease board before every game--he declined the security blanket of rooming on the road with Russian-speaking Lithuanian forward Dainius Zubrus in favor of a North American, right wing Brian Willsie, who was born in London, Ont. "I want to be in the team," Ovechkin says. "I want to understand coach and teammates. I not want to speak Russian and somebody translate for me." In addition to hurrying along Ovechkin's English and scouting out Starbucks, Willsie is vice president in charge of keeping Ovechkin informed of meeting times, bus departures and appropriate NHL dress, "although," as Willsie notes, "that leaves a little bit to be desired."
Ovechkin is Dolce & Gabbana one day, Dolce & Cabana Boy the next. He arrived for one practice wearing a red Washington Nationals cap, a red T-shirt from his NHL draft, red pants and red sneakers. The Caps laid his outfit on the dressing-room floor as a friendly rebuke. Still, Laddie in Red played better than his indefensible fashion faux pas of Daisy Duke jean shorts, which teammate Steve Eminger was obliged to confiscate.
"Considering he's come from a different culture and language--and with all the pressure and expectations--it would be normal at his age to sit in the corner and take everything in, hang around with Zubrus all the time and not interact with the team," says Kolzig, 35, a free agent in 2006 who is leaning toward re-signing because of Ovechkin and the team chemistry. "He's the exact opposite. He dives right in. Asking to room with a North American. Playing Texas hold 'em on the plane. When your superstar is like that, it has an effect on the rest of the team.
"The guy never gets rattled," the goaltender adds. "Actually, once he got rattled, in Buffalo, when 10 of us went out to dinner and he lost the credit-card game and had to pay. A thousand bucks. He doesn't realize that by the end of his career he'll be able to buy that restaurant."