Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Alexander Ovechkin fidgeted, looking for something, anything to occupy his hands. He wasn’t nervous, but he was the picture of nervous energy — wanting to be elsewhere and doing what he was intended to do, play hockey.

A word in Russian shot from his mouth, then a phrase. Dainius Zubrus, a Lithuanian who speaks fluent Russian and acts as Ovechkin’s interpreter when necessary, nodded.

“He said his favorite NHL team while he was growing up was San Jose. He liked the logo,” said Zubrus, Ovechkin’s center iceman.

San Jose? Not storied Montreal with its horde of legendary stars, Edmonton with Wayne Gretzky or Pittsburgh with Mario Lemieux? No, the depiction of a shark with a hockey stick in its mouth captured the imagination of a player who appears headed for NHL stardom.

This is where he wanted to be for as long as he could remember: in the NHL, getting ready for a season. It didn’t really matter that it was in Washington. He would have been just as happy in Oklahoma City, as long as it had an NHL team and he was a part of it.

“My first impression of him? Wow!” said Rick Dudley, a former NHL player, coach and general manager who now is director of player personnel for the Chicago Blackhawks and a highly regarded judge of raw talent.

“He was one of those rare, spectacular players who does everything,” Dudley said of a chance meeting several years ago at a tournament in Europe. “The thing that stuck out immediately was his commitment to play both ends of the ice. He wasn’t just a young player who was good offensively. He worked just as hard on defense, and that’s rare.”

While general manager at Florida in 2003, Dudley was so sure Ovechkin was a rare talent that he tried to convince the league that Ovechkin, 17 and too young to be drafted, was old enough to be selected. There had been four leap years in Ovechkin’s lifetime, Dudley reasoned, and that added the necessary time to his age to make him eligible.

Dudley’s creative thinking was admirable, but the league didn’t buy his logic.

“I just know what I saw when I scouted him, but I still don’t know how to describe it,” Dudley said. “He’s like a Jaromir Jagr who likes to play defense. I’d watch this kid take every stride he could to get back into a play. There are a lot of kids with talent, and this kid’s talent level is well above almost everybody else. But there are very few of them committed to play the complete game.

“Yeah, no question, he’s the best player I ever scouted in 25 years.”

Ovechkin, 20 last month, is the youngest of three sons born to Tatiana and Mikhail Ovechkin. His mother was a basketball star in Russia, winning two Olympic gold medals.

His father, a bear of a man, was an international soccer player and coach. The oldest son, Sergei, was killed in a car accident in 2000; he was 14 years older than Alex. Mikhail is the middle son, 23, a man Alex calls his best friend. They now live together in the District.

It was Sergei who greatly influenced him. Alex idolized the eldest brother, a wrestler. When Sergei introduced him to hockey at the Dynamo Moscow sports complex, the youngster was committed for life. Alex was 8.

Why hockey? After all, his mother played basketball, his father played soccer, his older brother wrestled.

Ovechkin paused, smiling broadly and his eyes lighting up. He understood the question — he didn’t need Zubrus for this.

“I don’t know. My brother took me to Dynamo hockey school. He helped me. That’s all,” he said.

That’s not quite all.

Seven years later, Ovechkin already was so advanced as a player that he was introduced to men’s competition on a part-time basis. A year later, he was playing for Dynamo Moscow in the elite league, starring as a player and captain of Russian national junior teams and later the men’s national squad. And that was before he turned 18.

“He’s a rare find,” said David Conte, the New Jersey Devils’ super scout who has watched Ovechkin for several seasons.

Said Sakari Pietila, a European scout for the Blackhawks: “What makes him so special is the fact he is a great team player. He works hard. He makes hits. He blocks shots. He gives pep talks to his teammates. And on top of all that, he’s an awesomely skilled player. He has great speed and hands. He’s a big guy who can stand his ground. He knows how to play every aspect of the game.

“He’s also a very balanced, very polite young man. Maybe that’s got something to do with the fact he comes from a sports family.”

The Ovechkin clan is very close. Everything is done as a unit. The decision to come to the NHL was Alexander’s, but it was made after an extended family discussion.

“Always, I feel their support,” Alexander said of his parents and brother. “When game start, I always look at stands to find them.”

His English is so-so, but it will improve quickly because he spends most of his time with North Americans and learns the language from them. His English lessons in Moscow were interrupted two years ago for predictable reasons: “I was busy. I have games, trips, practices. No [time for] English.”

Ovechkin is in Washington because the Caps two years ago finished with the third-worst record in the NHL. However, they won the draft lottery, pushing them up two spots into the No.1 position and allowing them to select perhaps the greatest hockey find since Lemieux in 1984. That was bad news for the Penguins, who had been No.1 before Washington won the lottery.

“We were devastated,” said one Pittsburgh official of the club losing its chance to draft the Russian star. “We were counting on him to save the team, bail us out the way Mario did all those years ago. I’ll tell ya, we didn’t know if we had a future — it was that bleak. Then we won the next lottery, of course, and got Sidney Crosby.”

The season starts tonight, and so does a whole new life for a 20-year-old emigrant who is quickly becoming one of the most popular figures in his new dressing room for reasons other than skill.

On the MCI Center ice tonight, a lot of thoughts will cross Ovechkin’s mind, but he will dwell on one — that his oldest brother will not be there to see him.

“Every game I play I think of him,” Ovechkin said, “and I say ‘thank you’ to him. I feel something special when I play hockey. This is my life. This is the air I breathe.”

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