Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Alex Ovechkin’s name doesn’t always appear on the Washington Capitals’ room list in hotels. He doesn’t join the rest of the team on the bus to the arena in some cities. Sometimes he even needs his teammates to remind him he must leave the throng of fans.

Despite playing for a team at the bottom of the standings, the rookie left wing has become something the Caps long have lacked: a front-line star with a following both locally and around the league. That has created some situations that, at least for the Caps, are unique.

Among them are the ways the Caps are dealing with fans looking for an autograph. Whether it’s the local rinks in Bowie, Laurel or Odenton, Md., or somewhere on the road, Ovechkin’s success and style of play have made him a fan favorite. And he is only too happy to oblige by signing his name.

“When I see a little boy, I remember when I was little and I used to stand and wait for some guy I would go to after a game,” he said yesterday after being named NHL rookie of the month for December. “Right now I feel I must sign because I am like this,” he said, struggling for the correct words in English but meaning his current status as an NHL star.

“When I was little, I had signatures from players on Spartak [then an elite league team in Moscow]. I had a stick from Alexei Zhamnov. I have a signature picture of [Slava] Fetisov. I was crazy about him. I was a fan of everybody.”

And today, it seems, everybody is a fan of Ovechkin. So much so that Ovechkin sometimes looks around for help when he’s surrounded by dozens of children. His willingness to accommodate them has created a cottage industry, but he is not really complaining. Part of the problem, if that is the right word, is that Ovechkin is more than willing to trade his “signature” for a child’s smile.

“I went after him because [the rest of the team] had left, and I was just sitting in the parking lot with his dad for 30 minutes waiting for him,” said center Dainius Zubrus, recalling an incident a week ago after practice at Bowie. “I just told him, ‘Hey, it’s time to go,’ and that was that.”

Said Ovechkin, who ranks seventh in the NHL with 24 goals and 11th with 46 points: “They are fans, and they want my signature. They live in Washington, and they are fans of our team. I think if I signed 10 signatures and there were 20 more fans waiting and I didn’t sign for them also, they would want to know why, and I would feel bad. If you have time, why not sign them all?”

And so the fans wait in hotel lobbies and next to the team bus. They congregate by players’ entrances to rinks. They would be outside his hotel room door if they knew which room he was in.

“I had to give him an alias when we were in Toronto,” said Corey Masse, the team’s manager of media relations. “We were mobbed. He went to get off the bus, and he had only one foot on the ground before they were shoving stuff in his face. I had to tell them to back off. I didn’t want somebody hurt. And I didn’t want somebody calling his room at odd hours, so basically he didn’t exist.”

This might be new for the Caps, but other teams have had such experiences,

Twenty-one years ago, another young star went through something similar. Nearly an hour after a playoff game in old Chicago Stadium, Wayne Gretzky sat in his stall, in full uniform except for his skates and helmet, signing autograph after autograph and chatting with dozens of children in the visiting dressing room.

“Gretz, you’re holding up the plane. The bus is leaving in five minutes,” yelled a frustrated John Muckler, then an Edmonton assistant coach and now the Ottawa Senators’ general manager.

“OK,” the star center replied. “See ya at home.”

How desperate are fans to get Ovechkin’s autograph? On Nov. 21, the day before the Caps played in Pittsburgh, 35 to 40 people started gathering at 3 p.m. in anticipation of Washington’s arrival at its usual hotel. What they didn’t know was that the club decided to travel on the day of the game. Hotel employees informed those waiting of the change in plans, but many refused to believe it.

“The bellhop said some were still there at 12:30,” Masse said. “And there were kids there with their dads.”

Said Caps coach Glen Hanlon: “Alex will end up being one of the elite players of the decade. I don’t think a lot of teams have those elite players. It’s a treat for us and a treat for them.”

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