- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

Alexander Ovechkin made his NHL debut with the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night with thundering impact.

Ovechkin, who turned 20 less than a month ago, skated onto the MCI Center ice at 7:10 p.m., and less than a minute later, he had more than 16,000 people standing and cheering wildly. He checked an opponent into the boards with such force it flattened the man and dislodged a piece of metal support holding the protective glass in place. Play had to be stopped for three minutes.

Later, of course, he scored twice as the Caps beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2.

“My favorite sign at the arena was, ‘BELIEVE THE HYPE,’ ” Ted Leonsis, the AOL executive and majority team owner, said yesterday.

Indeed, this may be one of those rare cases in which the hype about an athlete is not overblown, in which he is nearly everything everyone said he would be. And on top of that, he’s a nice kid.

But there also are the dangers of expecting too much too soon, of heaping more responsibility on the shoulders of a young man than he reasonably can be expected to carry.

“People like to compare him to Mario [Lemieux],” one hockey executive who asked not to be identified said yesterday afternoon. “That’s right in a sense because when Mario got to Pittsburgh [in 1984] he was expected to save the franchise. He did, but it took him five years to get the Penguins into the playoffs. Five years. People forget that.

“There are times when fans have unrealistic expectations,” the executive added. “Like a year ago, when Joe Gibbs came back to coach [the Redskins] and there was a segment of the population making Super Bowl reservations on the spot. You’re asking far too much of someone in their first year. Root for this kid, that’s fine, but don’t ruin him by asking for things he can’t produce right now.”

Nonetheless, interest in the left wing and the team appears to have spiked. A team spokesman said season-ticket sales were up 20 percent yesterday over usual midweek totals, although he could provide no figures.

Ovechkin came to Washington because of a little bit of luck. The Caps finished the 2003-04 season with the third-worst record in the league but won the lottery, giving them the top pick in the draft. Ovechkin had been playing in the top Russian men’s league since he was 15 and was excelling. Scouts and agents followed him from city to city. Selecting him was a no-brainer.

He turned down a more lucrative contract from a team in the Russian Super League to join the Caps and hit stride almost immediately. He had four goals and three assists in his final two preseason games.

Against Columbus, he twice rallied the Caps from deficits, becoming the first No. 1 draft pick overall to score multiple goals in his first NHL game. He almost scored two more goals and was named the game’s top star. The noise in the building was deafening.

“Thank God, we finally have a real power forward,” a fan said as he left the arena after the game.

“He is uniquely motivated to lead a team at such a young age,” Mr. Leonsis said. “Alex as a person, as a teammate and as a player is exceeding my expectations. He has great physical gifts, but it is the intangibles that will separate him from the other great young talents.

“He’s already a fan favorite — they hold their breath every time he’s near the puck.”

That also could be because of Ovechkin’s skating style. He has remarkable speed, but his movements seem predictable, giving opponents the opportunity to line him up for a blind-side hit. He usually comes in from the left side bent over with his head down, a style similar to Eric Lindros, a Toronto Maple Leafs player who has sustained several concussions.

The sudden interest in Ovechkin and Caps hockey was evident yesterday after a malfunction of some nature caused the game to be blacked out in some parts of the Washington television market, plus at least three other markets. Apparently, a significant number of complaints prompted Comcast SportsNet to rebroadcast the game last night.

“This is a long road we are on together, but Alex understands what we are doing,” Mr. Leonsis said, referring to the rebuilding process the team has undertaken. “He will have fun growing up in a city where he has teammates he admires and respects and with fans who fall in love with him.”

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