Tuesday, November 22, 2005

There was a sideline chat during a Washington-Baltimore football game. There have been chats with local and distant radio stations, with ESPN The Magazine, ESPN the TV network, TSN (the Canadian equivalent of ESPN), Voice of America, newspaper reporters in at least three countries. A Sports Illustrated interview comes later this week.

There have been other little asides, such as the time Alexander Ovechkin tried repeatedly to flip a puck over the netting to a young fan at practice. Unable to do that, he gave his stick to the youngster on the way to the dressing room — prompting a letter of praise from the boy’s father to John Buccigross, an ESPN anchor.

“I can’t imagine a more explosive NHL skater than Ovechkin,” Buccigross wrote. He “is obviously the son of athletes in terms of genetics, training and upbringing.”

Said Washington general manager George McPhee, a prejudiced but nonetheless knowledgeable person on the subject of rookie Russian left wings: “He’s perfect, I guess that’s the best way to describe him.

“He’s been fantastic on the ice, a real treat to watch for our fans,” the general manager continued. “He’s the kind of player that when he gets the puck, he pulls the fans right out of their seats. There’s a murmur in the crowd, and you can hear it, every time he gets near the puck. They’re expecting things to happen. And things do happen.”

Tonight in Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena, Ovechkin — the first overall pick in 2004 by the Caps — faces Sidney Crosby, the first overall pick in 2005 by the Penguins, for the first time in their NHL careers. The match has been ballyhooed since the day the schedules were first announced: the pride of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia; Pittsburgh; and Canada vs. the pride of Washington and Moscow.

Nothing will be settled in tonight’s match, but that is but a minor point in sports promotion.

The pair has met before in international competition, most recently in the title game of the world junior championships last January in North Dakota. Crosby’s Canadian team beat Russia, but Ovechkin missed the majority of the game with a shoulder injury that forced him to the sideline for a month. Nonetheless, Ovechkin was named the most valuable forward in the tournament.

The youngsters — Crosby is 18, Ovechkin 20 — have had an immediate impact on the areas they now call home. After Pittsburgh landed Crosby by winning the draft lottery, the phones in the Penguins’ ticket offices lit up for days on end. He has become the quasi-adopted son of the team’s owner, who just happens to be Hall of Fame forward Mario Lemieux.

Ovechkin had triggered internal wars in Russia over his services before he decided to head to the NHL. Those disputes resulted in a suit filed by his former team, Moscow Dynamo. He was rumored to be the best forward ever to migrate to the NHL from Europe even before he was drafted — the Caps got him by winning the 2004 draft lottery — and he has done everything in his power to turn those rumors into fact.

And he has done more. He is certainly one of the most popular Caps in the dressing room and occasionally pops off when he feels it is the time and place for a rookie to do so. He is rarely seen without a smile. He is on time, works hard, studies the game. Veterans took good-natured pokes at his method of dress when he first arrived (he bought new duds), but veterans in Edmonton did the same thing to a rookie named Wayne Gretzky a few decades back.

“He’s well-liked by his teammates and he’s respected by them,” McPhee said. “He’s coachable. He wants to learn, on and off the ice. He rooms only with North Americans because he says that way he can learn the language quicker. He’s done everything the club has asked him to do, everything. And there’s nothing contrived about him. He’s been terrific.”

Ovechkin was approached by a member of the team’s public relations staff recently and offered a sizable gift certificate to a very expensive and fashionable steak house in the District. It was the team’s way of saying thank you for willingly taking on every media interview request that had come in without once complaining.

Ovechkin turned it down, politely of course.

“If somebody ask me to give interview, I must not say no because it is my job and you must work and I must help,” Ovechkin said, confirming the story. “If I don’t give interview, maybe you be sorry and interview somebody else [from another team].

“I don’t want [to be] paid money for interview. When you give me [gift certificate], I say why? It was nice but it was not necessary.”

Said Kurt Kehl, the Caps’ vice president of communications: “His parents should get a lot of credit for the way he has been brought up, but do you know who else should? [Agent] Donnie Meehan. When Alex first got here, there were a few things we wanted to do and asked if we could squeeze them into his schedule. He said no, he’d plan his schedule around our needs. And that’s the way he’s been, and that’s the way Alex has been. Meehan has been first-class from the start and made everything very easy.”

Ovechkin nods when asked about Meehan, his unruly mop of black hair flopping in several directions.

“He help me lot,” the wing said. “He talked to me for long time about situations like this [interviews], lots of things.”

The teaching his agent has passed along will be put to the test today. Ovechkin and Crosby are front-runners for rookie of the team honors but by no means locks for the Calder Trophy.

“I’m not going to focus solely on Crosby because I’ve got Lemieux, LeClair, Recchi, Palffy, Gonchar and a lot of other guys to worry about,” Washington goalie Olie Kolzig said. “My job will be the same it’s always been — give the guys a chance to win. But I do hope we shut Crosby down and that Ovechkin gets two, three goals. But I don’t think this one game is going to make it or break it as far as rookie of the year is concerned.”

Said Caps coach Glen Hanlon: “Maybe the biggest thing is for him and the remaining players to remember this is not just about him, that we’re going there to play our best.”

And, said McPhee, “this is a kid from a foreign country whose personality is as special as his hockey ability. He’s a kid who comes around once in a long time who can change the fortunes of a franchise and the sport. You certainly want all your players to be like him.”

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