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."
For every supernatural, he-didn't-just-do-that-did-he? moment on the ice, Ovechkin's teammates have a he's-just-one-of-the-guys story in the locker room.
Like the night in Tampa Bay three years ago when Johnson and a couple of conniving Capitals slathered the star rookie's face with shaving cream in the middle of a television interview.
Unperturbed, Ovechkin carried on as if nothing had happened, the exact opposite of the me-first superstar. Others talk about how he forges through stomach-turning injuries when he could easily play the MVP card and take the night off.
Defenseman Sami Lepisto marveled at how in a game against Montreal last season, Ovechkin scored a goal, broke his nose, then returned to score three more, including the game-winner in overtime.
"He's getting wrapped up before the game and iced down after it," Lepisto says. "And you see that and you might have an injury, but you are like, 'Well, if Ovie can go out there and skate as hard as he does, I can go out there.' That rubs off on guys a lot, too."
It is strange that a man so humble and homely — Ovechkin has a face only a lipstick-wearing hockey mom could love, and some in the blogosphere have likened his rough countenance to that of Jaws, the old James Bond villain — has become the matinee idol of professional hockey. The boyish looks of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby appear fashioned for a Times Square billboard, and the young Canadian is far more articulate than his Russian rival.
Yet it was Ovie who in March signed a six-month advertising agreement with the Hair Cuttery, the nation's largest privately owned hair salon franchise, and graced the cover of ESPN the Magazine's NHL preview issue this fall. Last summer, he teamed with CCM, the NHL's official equipment sponsor, for the Ovechkin Streetwear Collection 2008.
Evidently, the husky hockey player is also somewhat of a fashionista.
"He's definitely a Dolce & Gabbana clothes hound," Johnson says, shaking his head. "No Wrangler jeans for him."
Ovechkin does sport a pair of hybrid trousers Johnson coined "sweat jeans" because of their peculiar "half sweatpants, half jeans" pattern.
While they have come to admire his affinity for fashion, his teammates drew the line when Ovie morphed drawstrings and denim.
"It's embarrassing," center Dave Steckel says of the pants. "He has a unique style, that's for sure. He doesn't care what anybody thinks of him. He's Ovechkin. He's the MVP of the league. He can do what he wants."
Ovechkin is also fast and furious. He sped around the Beltway in a BMW M6 and recently purchased a sparkling Mercedes S65. Ovie's new ride packs a V12 engine, which causes Johnson to shudder.
"I have ridden with him a couple of times — I don't think I will make that mistake again," Johnson says. "I wouldn't say he's reckless, he just goes a little faster than I normally go."
As the morning practice concludes, Ovie attacks the team's conditioning drills — a withering gantlet of diagonal skate-sprints across the ice — as he would four lanes of open highway.
He half-scampers, half-trudges back to the locker room and, still standing, begins to excavate himself from beneath layers of padding and medical tape. He jokes briefly with an equipment manager, grabs a can of Skoal and empties a bottle of Gatorade to use as a makeshift spittoon as he hurries out the door to watch film.
Despite what he may say, Alexander Ovechkin is not "normal people."
"He is just unbelievable to be around — a funny guy, full of exuberance, he's just a ton of fun," Johnson says. "Some people are just gifted that way."