- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Sax Man was playing his sweet horn at the Gallery Place Metro stop last night. So at least he knew there was a hockey game at MCI Center, even if the fans stayed away in droves.

That is, I think it was hockey. After an absence of 16 lockout-ridden months, it was hard to tell — kind of like “The Return of Martin Guerre.” The NHL, as you may be aware, has wreaked havoc with the rules in an attempt to boost scoring and bring the crowds back. The result is supposed to be a faster, freer-skating, more aesthetically pleasing game — more aesthetically pleasing, I mean, if you’re not Brantt Myhres, the former Capitals enforcer.

It’s a good time to be a Young Gun in hockey. In fact, there may never have been a better time to be a Young Gun. The league, with its elimination of the red line, its enlarging of the offensive zones and its new meter-maid approach to penalties, hopes to turn the ice into a friendlier place for the goal-scorers of the world. And that’s what the Caps are expecting Alexander Ovechkin to become — when he isn’t, of course, saving the franchise.

Ovechkin, the first player taken in the 2004 draft, made his debut for the Capitals last night against the Sabres. The club had purposely — and wisely — held him out of the first two preseason games so he could be unveiled in front of the home folks. Alas, there weren’t many home folks to unveil him in front of, 4,500 by one estimate. Such is the challenge facing the Caps as they try to re-establish a place for themselves in the Washington market.

It’s a more crowded market than the one in 2004, the season the Capitals last laced up their skates. Baseball has finally come to town and figures — if the Nationals’ first year is any indication — to do very well. That just squeezes the sports dollar further for a franchise like the Caps, who made no friends during the work stoppage and are now, with the addition of the Nats, the No. 4 pro team in Washington.

Such rankings are in a constant state of flux, though, and a player of Ovechkin’s ilk could definitely influence them. Especially if there’s as much open ice in the New NHL as there was last night. Granted, some of the space was created by all the four-on-four situations that resulted from the frequent penalties, but there was a much better flow to the game, much less bogging down in the neutral zone. If it wasn’t quite international hockey, Olympic hockey, it was the next best thing.

Ovechkin managed to get five shots off during the course of the evening, though none of them — to the chagrin of 14,000 empty seats — found the net. He did, however, score during the shootout exhibition that followed, smoothly flipping a backhander past Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. Afterward, in the locker room, he clutched a half-eaten bagel with jelly while being interviewed by a female reporter who spoke his language. I’m almost certain he said the Russian equivalent of, “We need to put the biscuit in the basket.”

The league is in such a precarious state that Wayne Gretzky felt obliged to leave his desk in Phoenix and take over as coach of the Coyotes. It might be a bit strong to say players are abandoning ship, but the retirements in recent weeks of Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis and Scott Stevens could certainly be looked at that way. There’s been a definite Icon Drain in hockey since the labor settlement, and kids like Ovechkin and the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby have a chance to step into the void — and rather quickly, if they’ve got the stuff.

The best news about “AO” (as the veterans have taken to calling the prize rookie), other than his prodigious talent, is that he appears to be low maintenance. Contract negotiations between the Caps and other Russian players (e.g. Alexander Semin) have tended to be as contentious and drawn out as the SALT talks, but Ovechkin’s were wrapped up fairly quickly. And it’s not like he couldn’t have played hard-to-get and stayed with his team back home, which also was dangling big dollars. But “Hockey Night in Moscow,” he realizes, is no match for “Hockey Night in Canada.” If you want to be an international star, your every shift transmitted to satellite dishes from Stockholm to Saskatoon, it behooves you to go west, young man.

Judging from the preseason results — and from last night’s 4-0 pasting by the Sabres — the Capitals’ prospects for this season aren’t particularly bright. So they’re doing what any intelligent team would do: They’re selling the future, selling Ovechkin and their other youngsters — Semin (if he ever deigns to show up), fireplug left wing Chris Bourque (son of Hall of Famer Ray) and the multitude of former first-round picks the club has stockpiled (some of whom might actually turn out to be as good as their scouting reports).

It’s a rebuilding process that, best-case scenario, is likely to take two or three years. In the meantime, Caps fans: Courage.

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