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Mother Russia

Feb. 25, 2008
Feb. 25, 2008

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Feb. 25, 2008

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Mother Russia

A former star athlete herself, Tatiana Ovechkina made sure her boy Alexander, the high-scoring Capitals winger, got what he deserved—a record NHL deal, that's what

THE MOST powerfulwoman in hockey was watching from a balcony as some of the Washington Capitalsshot hoops on an indoor court, when the team's majority owner, Ted Leonsis,urged her to come down for a free-throw-shooting contest. Leonsis, by hisreckoning, has game. He played guard at John Jay High in Brooklyn in the early1970s, the backcourtmate of a player who earned honorable mention all-city.Tatiana Ovechkina's basketball bona fides are more formidable. ¬∂ "In aninstant she goes from this"—Leonsis pantomimed a staid middle-agewoman—"to a player." He paused, then smiled. "I think she beatme." ¬∂ Ovechkina, 57, was the on-court leader of the Soviet Union nationalteams that won Olympic gold medals in 1976 and '80, one world championship andsix European titles, and she was later voted best female point guard of the20th century by readers of the Russian newspaper Sport Express. As for the freethrow contest, when asked about it later, she complimented the engagingLeonsis—"He's moving so good, great coordination"—but she didn't haveto "think" about the outcome. She knew.

This is an article from the Feb. 25, 2008 issue

Just as when shedid most of the negotiating on the 13-year, $124 million contract signed lastmonth by her son—the incandescent Alexander Ovechkin might be the most excitingplayer since Bobby Orr—Tatiana shot straight and came out on top.

IF ALEXANDERtechnically represented himself in arranging the NHL's first nine-figure deal,he made no move without Tatiana's approval. She is not nominally her son'sagent. She is so much more. She is the matriarch, the progenitor of her son'sextraordinary athletic genes, his intractable resolve and his jersey number;Alexander wears number 8, the same as she did. Tatiana gives her son love,counsel, toughness, dinner—when she and her husband, Mikhail, make periodicvisits to his home in the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Va.—and the occasionalbeating at games of H-O-R-S-E. "If you are a boss on a basketballcourt," she says through an interpreter, "you bring the same qualitiesto life."

Fourteen monthsafter the Ovechkins fired respected agent Don Meehan, the family sat acrossfrom Leonsis, Capitals president Dick Patrick and general manager George McPheewrangling over the details of a new contract. In a session that lasted morethan four hours the parameters of the deal expanded and contracted: six yearsto 12 years, back to six, 12 again and, finally, 13. Tatiana's English borderson the rudimentary, but she knows the language of negotiation: As president ofthe Moscow Dynamo women's basketball team, she's usually on the other side ofthe table.

The 22-year-oldOvechkin, who led the NHL with 48 goals through Sunday and had scored 23.1% ofthe Capitals' goals since he entered the NHL in '05, accepted $9 million foreach of the first six years and $10 million for each of the next seven. Thefamily did have a lawyer who was called into the meeting to look over the dealafter it had been agreed to, but by not using an agent, Ovechkin saved at least$3.72 million (3% of the value of the contract).

"I wouldn'tcall her uncompromising because she did, in fact, compromise," McPhee saysof Tatiana. "But Alex's mother is very strong, very protective. And sheknows what she wants." What she and Alexander wanted was a no-trade clause,something McPhee had granted only once in his 10 years as G.M. In the end thetwo sides agreed that beginning in the seventh year of the contract, Alexanderannually will submit a list of 10 teams to which he will not accept atrade.

The length of thedeal—second only to New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro's 15 years—gaveLeonsis pause in the wake of the disastrous seven-year, $77 million contract helavished on Jaromir Jagr in 2001. (After more than two seasons of middling playthe Capitals exiled Jagr to the New York Rangers, yet they still pay $3.46million of his annual salary.) But the Ovechkins had the hammer: If Alexanderhad not re-signed, he could have become a restricted free agent on July 1, preyto an offer sheet from another team that would have set the terms of a contractWashington would have felt obliged to match. "Put it this way," anotherG.M. says, "if they didn't get it done and somehow lost this kid, theymight as well padlock the arena."

After signing thecontract Ovechkin scored in 11 of his next 15 games as Washington battled forthe Southeast Division lead. The left wing had his second four-goal game of theseason, on Jan. 31 against Montreal, assisting on the Capitals' other goal in a5--4 overtime victory. (His highlight was not the winning goal but number 3, awicked snap shot through the legs of defenseman Mark Streit that beat goalieCristobal Huet high to the glove side from 42 feet.) In addition to the fivepoints, Ovechkin sustained the fifth broken nose of his career, from a FrancisBouillon shoulder; recorded five hits; and took a couple stitches in his mouthafter he was hit by a puck in the first minute. As pure hockey theater, hisvirtuoso performance might have been the greatest one-man show in the regularseason in a decade.

"Not in twoyears or five," Tatiana said when asked if the contract would temper herson's enthusiasm. "He doesn't have the stardom disease. People who saythese things are jealous." But 13 years is a lifetime in sports. In 1995the Hart Trophy winner was a 22-year-old Eric Lindros, now retired. Maybe thiswill be the contract-for-life that actually works, unlike the Jagr deal orAlexei Yashin's 10-year burlesque with the Islanders. You can't tell how thestory will end any more than a winner of the Soviet Union's Order of the Badgeof Honor and Order of Friendship of the People could have imagined she would goon to spend part of her winters watching her son humiliate defensemen in anarena nine blocks from the White House.

SHE WAS bornTatiana Kabayeva in the shadow of the Moscow Dynamo sports complex, to ahousehold in which sports mattered. Her father was a driver and played oncompany teams. She grew up in a time when schoolchildren in the U.S. werecrouching under their desks during air-raid drills to protect themselves from asupposedly imminent Soviet nuclear attack. Tatiana was six when, in 1956,Nikita Khrushchev told diplomats from the West in Moscow, "We will buryyou." Twenty years later, as the playmaker on the Soviet national team, shedirected the squad to the first Olympic women's basketball gold medal, at theMontreal Games.

Last month, inher customary aisle seat at the Verizon Center, Tatiana, elegant in agreen-and-gold print vest with fur collar and leather gloves that extendedalmost to the elbow, watched a Capitals--Ottawa Senators match with ado-not-disturb focus. Her husband, a former soccer player and taxi driver, andolder son sat a few rows back. (Alexander's parents have not sat together athis games for many years. "Superstition," Tatiana said, through atranslator.) She muttered the occasional instruction, including "passacross," in English, when Washington defenseman Mike Green had the puck atthe right point, but she never cheered, not even when her son beat goaltenderRay Emery with what proved to be the winning goal in a 4--2 Washington victory.She applauded twice during the game, once after Alexander Semin's film-at-11goal and again when a package of goalie Brent Johnson's highlights was shown onthe scoreboard. Several times during the game, Ovechkin glanced in his mother'sdirection as if there was some telepathic connection.

"She has somuch experience," said Alexander. "We are both professional athletes.Mom is a strong athlete and a strong person."

Strong? How doyou calculate strength? During an interview the day before the game Tatianastood, raised her right trouser leg and exhibited with shy pride a massive scarthat begins above her ankle and rides up almost to mid-thigh. When she wasseven, walking home from school with friends, a car struck her. Doctors wantedto amputate the mangled leg. There was one major surgery, then another, andseveral minor operations. She was hospitalized for a year. When she finallyreturned to school, doctors forbade her from even participating in gym class.She devised her own rehabilitation program, putting bricks in a plastic bag,hooking it around her foot and doing leg lifts. By the time she was 10, she wasblossoming on a youth basketball team.

Strong? How doyou measure the strength needed to survive the loss of a child, her firstborn?Sergei Ovechkin died in 1995, when he was in his early 20s, from complicationsfollowing an automobile accident in Moscow. "We were all together, grievedall together, together we didn't crumble and together, only together, wesurvived it," Tatiana said. Tears appeared to well in her eyes. Theinterpreter turned and added, "She asks you to move on to otherquestions." Asked if their son's death triggered a hyperprotective responsein a woman he has known 38 years, the senior Mikhail spread his arms wide andsaid, "Of course. Like a hen with her chickens, trying to protect,spreading her wings, keeping them together."

THIRTEEN YEARSlater the family seems close, happy. Certainly it is wealthy beyondexpectation. When Alexander stood up and announced they had a deal, Leonsiswalked over and hugged Tatiana, telling her, "You were very tough and veryfair." Reflecting on that day, Leonsis says, "I missed my [late]mother, seeing not only how she loves her son but also how she launched him.She wants to give him all her advice and love, but he's a grown-up now. It wasvery sweet to watch."

The launch hasbeen spectacular for Alexander, although, according to someone with knowledgeof the family, Tatiana finds it difficult to see her son making more of his owndecisions. When asked if Alexander's success is a continuation of her owndecorated career, Tatiana says, "Of course."

"Sometimes Iargue with my mom," says Alexander, "but she gives me great advice. Thebest advice was not about the contract but about life: Just beyourself."

And Mother Russiaknows best.

Hot Shots fromthe Start

SINCE HE burstinto the NHL in 2005, Alexander Ovechkin has scored more goals than any otherplayer: 146 through Sunday. That total also is more than any other activeplayer scored in his first 223 games. Here are the active players with the mostgoals in 223 games and how they have fared since.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

PLAYERGOALS THROUGH 223 GAMESTOTAL GOALSTOTAL GAMES
ALEXANDER OVECHKIN146146223
TEEMU SELANNE1455411,048
PAUL KARIYA129381879
JEREMY ROENICK1095041,303
ILYA KOVALCHUK106242445
"Not in two years or five," Tatiana said, onwhether the deal would temper Alex's enthusiasm. "He doesn't have theSTARDOM DISEASE."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Mitchell Layton/NHLI/Getty ImagesSECRET AGENT Thanks in part to Tatiana's unofficial negotiations, Alexander (8) is set to make $124 million over the next 13 years.PHOTOSIMON BRUTYPHOTOMITCHELL LAYTON/NHLI/GETTY IMAGESLOVE TAPS With 48 goals through Sunday, Ovechkin led the league—and had lifted his teammates into the fight for a playoff spot.PHOTOTOM TURRILL/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (SELANNE)