The crowd at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on a recent Sunday morning is 150 strong. Die-hard hockey fans they are not, this group — young couples struggling to keep their toddlers from crawling in the aisles, gangly middle-school boys clad in Redskins burgundy-and-gold, Starbucks-sipping 20-something-year-old women on shopping breaks from Ballston Mall.
But one need only trace the trajectory of the spectators’ collective gaze to see what has drawn them to the chilly rink on this sunny September day.
The countless sets of eyes are trained not on the puck pinballing around the arena before them, but on the hulking ox of a player gliding gracefully across the ice: Alexander Ovechkin.
Ovechkin does not notice them as he effortlessly darts from one corner of the rink to the other. He does not see the boy behind him snapping his picture on a cell phone while the hockey player rests with his hands on his knees. He ignores the families pointing at him from behind the glass as if he were an animal in a zoo. He pretends not to see the kids who wave wildly at him every time he glances up from the ice.
When he smashes his stick in frustration after failing to net a goal during a routine drill, his personal gallery recoils instinctively, then awkwardly reconnoiters as the Washington Capitals’ teenaged equipment boy scrambles after the splintered shards.
In many ways, the 23-year-old Russian left winger fits the mold of a star athlete with tunnel vision for his trade.
The son of a former Olympic gold medalist and professional soccer player, Ovechkin was playing hockey by the time he turned 7 and leading the renowned Dynamo Moscow club at 16. He was the first overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft and became a YouTube sensation with his Houdini-esque goal in a game against the Phoenix Coyotes in 2006.
In January, he signed a 13-year, $124 million contract extension, the most lucrative deal in the history of the NHL, and captured the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player at season’s end.
A shaggy mullet sprays out the back of his helmet. A half-week’s outcropping of stubble covers his cheeks. He smiles a gap-toothed grin.
But there is more to the swaggering Moscow native. After all, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty doesn’t hand out the keys to the nation’s capital as he did for Ovechkin in June to just any old goon in a sweater and skates.
In his three seasons in the District, Ovechkin, whose hobbies include fashion and fast cars, has used his energetic aura and humble nature off the ice to sell Washingtonians on hockey.
“He’s one of those guys everyone wants to be around,” goaltender Brent Johnson says. “I think he has opened up the city to hockey, that’s for sure. Every appearance, he never backs down from them. He does all his interviews. He never shies away from the press.”
So how does Ovechkin, who hasn’t fully mastered English, survive the withering 82-game NHL season — the Capitals open the regular season on Friday — and the gantlet of PR opportunities with a smile? He paces himself and stays grounded.
Ovie’s 65 goals in 2008 may have led the Capitals to great heights both on the ice — Washington made the NHL postseason for the first time in seven years — and off — the franchise finished the season with seven straight sellouts at Verizon Center — but Ovechkin prefers to lay low in his Arlington mansion during his downtime.
“I like to stay in my house,” Ovechkin says. “I am like normal people. I like computer games, music, everything like this.” He returns each offseason to his native Moscow, where he spends time “enjoying [his] life” and “doing things normal people do on their vacation.”