The legacy of Alex Ovechkin, at 800 targets and counting

Because the Russian hockey star takes purpose on the NHL’s best scorers, his off-ice legacy is changing into tougher to outline. And he’s nonetheless not prepared to speak about it.

Ovechkin poses during the Washington Capitals' media day. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Ovechkin poses in the course of the Washington Capitals’ media day. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Put up)

Remark

One morning within the fall of 2001, gamers for Dynamo Moscow have been ready to take the ice for observe forward of the upcoming Russian Superleague season, because the Zamboni accomplished its lazy, ovaloid circuit across the rink, making the ice gleam like glass. Luzhniki Small Sports activities Area in Moscow’s southwestern nook was in any other case empty, the crew imposing a strict, no-spectators rule. There have been no exceptions — not even for the dad and mom of the 16-year-old Dynamo phenom who could be enjoying that season alongside grown males as previous as 32.

However as he waited, that child, Alexander Ovechkin, noticed one thing: Within the windshield of the Zamboni, the place usually there’s solely the face of the motive force, a second face may very well be seen peering by means of the fogged-up glass. It was Ovechkin’s father, Mikhail — and when he caught his son’s eye, he grinned fiendishly.

“I’m looking around, and I see his little head,” Ovechkin recalled with fun. “He would never miss my practices.”

Ovechkin, now, at 37, the residing achievement of all of the outrageous promise that 16-year-old phenom as soon as harbored, instructed that story on a grey Monday afternoon in a lounge off the foyer of the Washington Capitals’ crew resort in Chicago, close to the top of a grueling stretch of street video games, in the midst of a season of extraordinary achievement for the three-time NHL most useful participant.


Alex Ovechkin is 2 targets from passing Gordie Howe for second all time and 95 from breaking Wayne Gretzky’s NHL document.

Howe performed within the World Hockey Affiliation for six seasons

Howe

52 years

and 6

days previous

Ovechkin

37 years

and 87

days previous

Gretzky

38 years

and 82

days previous

Supply: hockey-reference.com

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Alex Ovechkin is 2 targets from passing Gordie Howe for second all time and 95 from breaking Wayne Gretzky’s NHL document.

Howe performed in

the World Hockey Affiliation for

six seasons

Howe

52 years

and 6 days

previous

Ovechkin

37 years

and 87 days

previous

Gretzky

38 years

and 82 days

previous

Supply: hockey-reference.com

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Alex Ovechkin is 2 targets from passing Gordie Howe for second all time and 95 from breaking Wayne Gretzky’s NHL document.

Howe performed in

the World Hockey Affiliation for

six seasons

Ovechkin

37 years and

87 days previous

Gretzky

38 years and

82 days previous

Howe

52 years and

6 days previous

Supply: hockey-reference.com

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

The subsequent night time in opposition to the Chicago Blackhawks, Ovechkin would document the 798th, 799th and 800th targets of his storied profession, changing into simply the third participant in additional than a century of NHL historical past to achieve that milestone. On Thursday at Capital One Area, he’ll take the ice for the Caps standing only one purpose behind Gordie Howe for second place all-time and 94 targets — or roughly two full seasons at his present tempo — behind Wayne Gretzky for first place.

“He’s historic. How else do you explain what is happening here?” marveled Ted Leonsis, who has owned the Capitals for the whole lot of the Ovechkin period. “Wayne Gretzky’s record — nobody thought it could be broken. When Alex had his first couple of great years, people said, ‘We’ve seen this before — guys score 50, 60, 70 goals.’ But to maintain that over this period of time and not get hurt? And now, it seems like every game there’s some record he’s breaking.”

It might not have been Ovechkin’s intention, however the story of his father and the Zamboni managed to tug collectively all the most important themes swirling round him as he bears down on Howe and turns his sights towards Gretzky: his deep Russian roots and practically decade-long friendship with Russian president Vladimir Putin, with all of the complexities therein throughout a time of battle; the enduring bond of household for a person who’s each a loyal son and father; the hockey legacy Ovechkin has been authoring on two continents since childhood; and the defining sense of loyalty that has tethered him to only one Russian crew (Dynamo) and one American crew (Washington) for the whole lot of his 22-year skilled profession.

“I only played [for] two teams. If there was no NHL, I’d probably stay with Dynamo for whole career,” he stated in English, his second language. “Obviously, I didn’t know much about city or the team when I came to Washington. But the people who was around me welcomed me to the team, to the country, help me grow up. That’s why you are thankful and don’t want to change it. All the guys who stay with one team, they have a chance to go somewhere [else] for more money, but they didn’t — because it became home, a place where you want to stay. I probably couldn’t [picture] myself in another uniform.”

He has been considering lots these days of his dad and mom, Tatyana and Mikhail. Mother was the standout level guard for the Soviet Union basketball crew that took gold on the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, and Dad was a soccer participant. As soon as fixtures at Ovechkin’s many milestone moments throughout his 18-season NHL profession, they will’t journey to the States anymore on account of Mikhail’s declining well being. The finest they will do now could be keep up late — or get up early, relying upon what time the puck drops — to look at his video games and congratulate him by way of a postgame telephone name when he scores. (Reached at dwelling this week, Tatyana Ovechkin declined an interview request.)

“When I was growing up,” Ovechkin stated, “parents always telling me, ‘You have to stay who you are. You can’t change. Doesn’t matter how much money you have.’”

4 years in the past, Ovechkin turned a father himself, when he and spouse Nastya welcomed son Sergei, named for the brother who died when Ovechkin was 10. A second son, Ilya, arrived in 2020. They issue into each facet of Ovechkin’s future, and the boys’ burgeoning love of the sport offers him further motivation to proceed enjoying — to share with them the legacy he’s constructing on the ice. And within the meantime, 4-year-old Sergei, nicknamed “Little Ovi,” has already demonstrated a superb lefty shot.

Requested how good can Little Ovi be, Ovechkin paused and stated with no hint of irony, “Hopefully better than me.”

The first sentence of Ovechkin’s Corridor of Fame plaque, at any time when it’s finally forged, is more likely to trumpet his goal-scoring mark, the one query being whether or not he’s first or second all-time. The second sentence is more likely to notice the Stanley Cup title he helped earn for the Capitals in 2018 after years of irritating flameouts within the playoffs.

The championship was a second that marked each a climax and a turning level for Ovechkin, permitting the autumn of his profession to proceed with out the suffocating stress and scrutiny of being the man who couldn’t win all of it — a tag that wounded him each externally and internally.

“After all the disappointments we have in previous years, it’s like, ‘OK, is this my fault or is this organizational thing?’” Ovechkin stated of his personal introspection. “Sometimes when you look at the roster or the team that we have, this is championship [caliber] team. We have depth, we have skills players. But we didn’t do it. So you asking yourself what you can do better… If you lose, obviously people going to put a finger on you and say like, ‘Ah, this guy, he’s not a winner.’ Oh yeah, I heard it a lot. From the fans, you [media] guys. But people have to understand, it’s team sport. It’s not about one guy.”

Ovechkin has clearly thought of his legacy past the document e book. He has at all times saved one foot in Russia, the place he spends a lot of his offseasons and stays essentially the most well-known sports activities star within the nation, and one in America. He has a youth hockey academy in Moscow and has goals of opening one other within the D.C. space. Of late, he has instructed buddies of a want to have a job inside the Capitals’ group as soon as he retires from enjoying.

However the legacy query isn’t one he is able to deal with. Final month, within the aftermath of an on-ice ceremony marking Ovechkin’s NHL document for many targets scored with one franchise, Capitals President Dick Patrick tried to thank him for every little thing he has dropped at the group, and Ovechkin brushed it off, saying, “No, no, no. Thank me when I retire.”

On Monday in Chicago, when requested what he hoped his legacy could be, Ovechkin, by no means identified for his protection, swatted the query away like a penalty-kill grinder who would take a puck to the face to cease a purpose.

“First of all, I’m not done yet,” he stated. “And secondly, it’s a long way to end of my career. We’ll see at the end.”

Legacies, it’s true, are ever-evolving and fragile. And on this, of all years, the query of Ovechkin’s has grown sophisticated.

At an alumni reception two months in the past at Capital One Area, a constructing that sits roughly 10 blocks from the White Home, former Capitals gamers mingled with present ones. Handshakes have been exchanged. Selfies have been taken. Tales have been instructed.

After which out of the blue, Dmitri Khristich was standing in entrance of Alex Ovechkin.

Khristich, a Capitals ahead from 1990 to 1995 and once more from 2000 to 2002, was the final Washington participant of consequence to put on sweater No. 8 earlier than Ovechkin, who selected the quantity as a result of his mom wore it, took it as his. Over that alumni weekend, a few of Khristich’s ex-teammates had taken to calling him “Original Eight,” to distinguish him from Ovechkin, “the Great Eight.”

Khristich, 53, is Ukrainian. He and his household — spouse Oleksandra and 16-year-old stepson Ilya — have been pressured to go away their dwelling in Kremenchuk, an industrial metropolis roughly 200 milessoutheast of Kyiv, after Russia invaded the nation in February. He’s working part-time for the Ukrainian hockey federation, serving to put together its under-25 nationwide crew for subsequent month’s World College Video games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

On the alumni operate, Khristich stated later, Ovechkin was startled at first to see him. However ultimately Ovechkin requested politely, “How are things over there?”

“They are bad,” Khristich replied. However relatively than elaborate and threat escalating the state of affairs, he let it go at that, and the 2 quickly moved on to different faces.

“We weren’t there for that kind of reason,” Khristich defined not too long ago in a Zoom interview from Philadelphia, the place his household has settled in the intervening time. He spends a lot of his time watching video games from the Ukrainian Hockey League, which is within the midst of a patchwork common season schedule that, in keeping with Khristich, generally sees video games interrupted by bomb sirens, with everybody decamping to a bomb shelter till the menace is over.

Requested about Ovechkin’s public stance, Khristic stated, “We condemn anyone who supports in any way that terrorist country… Obviously, [Ovechkin] is here for the reason of to play hockey, and that’s what he does. His other point of view, I totally condemn his point of view.”

However what’s Ovechkin’s standpoint? The reply is elusive, maybe even fluid. His longtime help for and friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, courting no less than way back to 2014, is well-known and oft-dissected. He famously began a social media motion known as Putin Staff in 2017, forward of the 2018 Russian elections, and his Instagram profile image stays a posed shot of him and Putin.

“I have never hidden my attitude toward our president, always supporting him,” Ovechkin wrote in Russian in 2017. “I am confident that there are many of us, supporting Vladimir Putin. So let’s unite and show everyone a united and strong Russia!”

At a information convention in February, days after the Ukraine invasion started, Ovechkin distanced himself from that help, although not as adamantly as some would have most popular. “I am not in politics,” he stated then. “Like, I am athlete.” Later, he added, “Please, no more war.” In Could, when pressed about his help of Putin, Ovechkin instructed The Washington Put up, “He is my president, right? I am Russian. What else can I say?”

Forward of Ovechkin’s interview with The Put up on Monday, a Capitals spokesman stated Ovechkin wouldn’t make any additional feedback in regards to the battle or Putin. When requested throughout that interview if that have been true, or if he wished to make clear or amend something he stated in February, Ovechkin stated, “I think it’s enough, what I said.” Requested if the criticism has diminished his enjoyment of this second, he stated, “Not really. Because it’s a situation [where] you can’t do anything.”

Folks near Ovechkin defend his impartial stance, saying there are advanced causes for it, together with his large visibility in Russia, the very fact his dad and mom stay in Moscow and a censorship regulation the Kremlin enacted in March making it a criminal offense to criticize the battle effort. Others see Ovechkin’s closeness along with his dad and mom, his one-team tenure within the NHL and his Russian patriotism as completely different facets of the identical defining character trait: deep loyalty.

Even the choice to maintain Ovechkin’s Instagram profile photograph with Putin is fraught with penalties: Conserving it invitations undesirable scrutiny in America. Altering it will have invited much more scrutiny, if not worse, in Russia.

“In his mind, he’s doing the right thing,” stated one one that has identified Ovechkin since his Dynamo days, who spoke on the situation of anonymity with a purpose to converse freely a few delicate topic. “He thinks of himself as a patriotic Russian who loves his country. Hopefully in the last nine months he has realized [Putin] is out of control, and maybe he has changed his opinion. But he has been behind [Putin] so long, he’s in a precarious situation. It’s better for him to say nothing.”

Each the NHL and the Capitals have managed to comprise the difficulty this season, although it nonetheless rages on social media and elsewhere. In western Canadian cities comparable to Calgary and Edmonton, the place there are massive Ukrainian populations, Ovechkin has been met with sustained boos.

Within the Capitals’ locker room, meantime, the subject is studiously prevented.

“We all decided not to talk about that,” stated veteran middle Nicklas Backstrom, who has performed in additional than 1,000 video games alongside Ovechkin. “I know the war was wrong, but I’m not going to sit there and discuss that with him. He’s in a tough position. He didn’t start the war, so it should definitely not take away from what kind of athlete he is. He’s just a regular guy chasing records and wanting to be a great hockey player.”

The similar goes for the chief workplaces. In March, the crew launched a press release condemning the battle, including that it stands “in full support of our Russian players and their families overseas. We realize they are being put in a difficult position and stand by to offer our assistance to them and their families.”

Requested not too long ago what he would say to followers who really feel conflicted about Ovechkin given his public, pro-Putin stance, Leonsis stated, “I think you don’t have to be conflicted. I just think he’s playing hockey. And the joy that he has given us, the love he has shown for the fans, for the community — everyone should have permission to return it. I certainly do. “

“I keep my politics out of [it]. I have my political leanings and opinion,” Leonsis continued. “But when I’m at a game and I’m watching him play, I’m admiring how he plays. And I’m not thinking about what country is he from and what’s happening. I understand why you have to address it, but no, people have permission to return the love that he has been giving everybody.”

However not everyone seems to be keen to just accept the compartmentalization that permits Ovechkin’s hockey persona to be saved separate from his political one.

“I know it’s a sport, but you can’t pull the sports away from the politics, with what is going on now,” Ukrainian defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, who spent 15 years within the NHL earlier than retiring in 2008, stated in a phone interview. “I don’t know [Ovechkin’s] mind. Maybe he’s against the war but he’s afraid to say it. But also, if you don’t say anything, you’re for it. You have to speak out. Tomorrow it’s too late. You had 10, 11 months [since the invasion began] to say anything. If you’re quiet, you are either afraid or you love war.”

Corridor of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek has additionally been outspoken about Ovechkin’s ties to Putin, utilizing an expletive on Twitter to explain Ovechkin’s temporary February information convention and calling for the NHL to droop the contracts of Russian gamers till the invasion is over.

Whereas some worldwide sports activities federations, together with the Worldwide Ice Hockey Federation, have banned groups from Russia from worldwide competitors, the NHL, with practically 50 Russian gamers on its rosters, is just not identified to have thought-about the same ban of people. In a March assertion, it stated these gamers “play in the NHL on behalf of their NHL Clubs, and not on behalf of Russia.”

Reached by way of WhatsApp in his native Czech Republic on Thursday, Hasek remained unrelenting, saying in a textual content message that Ovechkin “by his actions helps Russian politics and all the crimes that are connected with it,” and that the NHL, by allowing Russian gamers within the league, “is thus responsible for both huge economic damages and many lost lives.”

“I don’t even blame Alex himself, but above all the NHL,” Hasek continued. “… Speaking positively about the NHL and [Ovechkin] at this moment means supporting the war and being responsible for everything connected with Russian aggression. And I won’t do that. That is against my good conscience.”

One afternoon in Philadelphia in early December, Ovechkin sat reverse Mark Howe in a pair of comfortable chairs organized below TV lights. As producers threaded clip-on mics by means of their shirts, getting ready to tape a tv particular that might air when Ovechkin received nearer to Gordie Howe’s mark, Ovechkin and Howe’s son made small discuss.

They talked about among the uncanny resemblances between the 2 superstars: How each Gordie Howe and Ovechkin have been large for his or her eras. How they’re each related virtually completely with one NHL franchise (Howe spent 25 of his 26 NHL seasons with the Detroit Purple Wings). And, oddly, how each have been right-handed shooters who produced two hockey-playing sons who shot left-handed.

“Your dad, he came back to play with you, right?” Ovechkin requested Mark Howe, himself an completed participant who adopted his father into the Hockey Corridor of Fame in 2011, in addition to a gracious man who has taken it upon himself to fill in for Gordie, who died in 2016, on the welcome committee for the 800-goal membership.

“That’s right,” Howe stated, recalling how Gordie Howe got here out of retirement in 1973 at age 45 to play along with his teenage sons, Mark and Marty, on the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Affiliation. “And then he played until he was 52.”

Ovechkin grew quiet, the gears in his mind virtually buzzing with thought, then shook his head. He needed the mathematics to work, but it surely simply wouldn’t. If Sergei and Ilya Ovechkin make it to the NHL, their dad can be lengthy since retired. And he received’t be coming again.

“Even if it’s possible,” Ovechkin stated later, with completely paradoxical logic, “it’s not possible.”

If it wasn’t clear again when he signed his present five-year $47.5 million contract with the Capitals in July 2021, it’s clear now that the deal had twin functions: to permit Ovechkin to complete his profession in Washington and to hold him to the doorstep of Gretzky’s document, and hopefully past.

“He was insistent on that [term]. I thought maybe three years, and go from there,” recalled Capitals Common Supervisor Brian MacLellan. “But in his mind, it was, ‘Here’s what I need [to get to Gretzky]. And he was adamant about it: ‘I want five. I can play five. I won’t let you down. I’m going to play five.’”

Requested how lengthy he intends to play, Ovechkin stated, “It’s still fun. You still want to go out there and play the game. As soon as I don’t have that enjoyment, I probably retire. I respect this game so much and love this game so much, I don’t want to be embarrassing out there and do something that people gonna say, ‘Well, that’s it.’”

The math for 900 targets — to choose a handy, spherical quantity simply past Gretzky’s mark — is outrageous. A participant may common 45 targets per season for 20 years — a threshold neither Howe nor Gretzky ever reached after turning 30 however that Ovechkin has already hit 5 instances in his 30s, with a present tempo that might give him a sixth this season — and simply barely get there.

Gretzky, by means of a spokesperson, declined an interview request for this story. However he predicted on a TNT telecast in October that it was a matter of “when not if” Ovechkin passes him.

“It’s insane, that number of goals,” Caps veteran T.J. Oshie stated. “But he’s a different type of player. He’s the most natural goal scorer I’ve ever seen, without a doubt. He finds areas where the puck is going to go in. He has the shot, the strength, the power behind it. But even more than that, you appreciate how many times he’s played through injury, how few games he’s missed. I’ve missed 115 more games than him in our careers. That’s a lot of games.”

Even when gamers wore numberless uniforms, it has at all times been simple to pick Ovechkin on the ice. He was the tank with the Porsche engine, the one with the patented bunny-hop of a primary step. At 6-3, 238 kilos, he was larger than anybody who ever had a shot as lethal as his and extra proficient than anybody as huge. He introduced his presence within the first shift of his NHL debut at age 20, smashing poor Radoslav Suchy of the Columbus Blue Jackets so laborious into the boards it broke the glass.

Seventeen years later, with salt-and-pepper hair and an engine that may now not go 200 mph for 20 minutes of ice time every night time, Ovechkin has needed to make refined concessions to his age.

“He’s adjusted. He’s older. He’s not as much of a rush player as he used to be,” MacLellan stated. “He used to take guys on one-on-one. He has to limit that now. He used to be able to take over games physically. Now, once in a while, he picks his spots. He’ll throw a really good check. But you can’t play that way at that age or you won’t last.”

The means the Capitals deploy Ovechkin definitely helps make a run at Gretzky doable. In keeping with hockey analytics website MoneyPuck.com, whereas Ovechkin’s five-on-five scoring price (1.0 targets per 60 minutes) is close to a career-low, he stays an elite power-play scorer, and the Caps use him on that unit at a near-league-high price (95.2 p.c of doable 5-on-4 ice time). Moreover, he begins 23.3 p.c of his shifts within the offensive zone, close to the very best within the league, and solely 2.1 p.c within the defensive zone, close to the bottom within the league, decreasing his end-to-end mileage.

“Basically,” stated Peter Tanner, MoneyPuck’s founder, “if hockey had a designated hitter, it would be Ovechkin.”

However designated hitters can nonetheless rake, particularly when given a gentle food plan of meatballs. Profession targets quantity 794, 795, 796 and 797 for Ovechkin, coming in a dizzying three-game span final week, have been all empty-netters. However they counted all the identical, and the calls nonetheless got here by means of from Mother and Dad in Moscow afterward.

“A goal,” defined the person who’s his era’s main knowledgeable on the topic, “is a goal.”

With Ovechkin having already misplaced some 150 video games in his profession to a pair of lockouts and a worldwide pandemic — and with all his years of fine well being maybe tempting destiny — nothing could be taken with no consideration. Even one other 50-goal season in 2022-23 wouldn’t assure extra wholesome years. Gretzky himself was completed by 38. The Caps determine to blow out the celebration for Ovechkin’s 802nd purpose as a result of there isn’t a assure there’ll ever be an 895th.

“It’s such an historic story for him to be with one organization all that time,” Leonsis stated, extolling the virtues of the shared loyalty between the Capitals and Ovechkin. “And I pray for a happy ending.”

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