Thursday, October 5, 2006

The young NHL star leans against the outside of the locker room door at the Washington Capitals practice facility in Ashburn, Va., talking to a reporter. Because of an adjacent skating rink, it is cold, meat-locker cold. Yet Alex Ovechkin wears nothing but a pair of towels. Not only that, but whenever a teammate opens the door from the inside, it slams into him. Ovechkin makes no effort to move. In fact, he enjoys this, because he then gets to slam the door back.

Asked why he does this, he immediately replies: “Because I’m crazy.”

Yeah, he’s crazy all right. Crazy like the best young player in the NHL if not the best player, period. Every other team would trade with the devil for this kind of crazy.

But Ovechkin, the 2005-06 rookie of the year, is probably exaggerating. Largely because of the physical, rough-and-tumble nature of the game, most hockey players are sort of nuts, anyway.

When told what Ovechkin said about himself, teammate and fellow Russian Dainius Zubrus said, “I wouldn’t call him crazy. There are guys who don’t use common sense. He’s a smart guy.”

Except maybe when it comes to his wardrobe, a frequent topic of conversation among the Caps.

“Where do I start?” Zubrus said.

How about the shredded jeans Ovechkin wore when he stood at the base of the mound, surrounded by several of his teammates, and threw out the first pitch (a strike) at a recent Nationals game?

“It’s not bad when you’re wearing half a jeans and your butt is hanging out,” Zubrus said. “But he should be paying half price, and he’s paying five times more than he should be.”

No doubt about it, “Ovie,” as everyone calls him, has adjusted to life in these United States. His performance last year — the 52 goals and 54 assists, the eye-popping skills and the beyond-his-years savvy, the molten competitiveness — speaks for itself. He is a natural, even though he continues to work hard to improve. Much of what he does cannot be learned nor otherwise acquired. It seems as if at some point when he was very young, the hockey gods got together and said, “Yeah, him.”

But nearly as impressive to those around Ovechkin is what he is doing off the ice.

He is a Russian first, make no mistake. But the Americanization of Ovie is occurring at a pace perhaps shocking and definitely amazing to all connected with the team. Just 21, still learning English, still a relative stranger in a strange land, Ovechkin has cast aside all trepidations and immersed himself in a new culture for the good of both himself and his team.

“He really embraces the lifestyle and wanting to be here and wanting to enjoy every moment,” said Caps general manager George McPhee, who took Ovechkin with the first pick of the 2004 amateur draft. “We could not envision not only how he’s embraced it, but how he took over. He really sets the tone, on the ice but also off the ice. If the best player sets the tone and is respectful off the ice, whether it’s for the team, the fans or the coaches, it makes a tremendous impact.”

Said his agent, Don Meehan: “Quite frankly, he surprised me in relation to his assimilating. I’ve been in this business 26 years and this truly is unique. He has a real passion for the game, for the players who play in this league and his passion extends to all of the other obligations of meeting the public and being part of the process of growing the game.”

Ovechkin put it this way: “I want to experience this world, and if I like this world, I will be happy.”

He paused.

“So I like this world, and I’m happy,” he added. “I feel at home here. I feel very comfortable.”

Without arm-twisting or any other form of persuasion, Ovechkin is here, there and everywhere helping to promote the Caps. While at a 21st birthday party at a downtown bar, he signed everything from jerseys to a woman’s breast one night. On another night, he took batting practice and threw out the first pitch at RFK. It has been that way since Ovechkin arrived last year.

But unlike his on-ice persona, he can’t do it all, which is why the club carefully walks the availability tightrope.

“He’ll take any requests,” said Capitals publicist Nate Ewell, who helps screen and coordinate Ovechkin’s schedule. “He doesn’t say no to anything. There were times last year when, at a practice, he’d get requests from P.R., a request from marketing and a request from sponsorship. And he would instinctively say yes to everything. The hard part for me is that I have turn things away before they get to him, and I feel bad about that. But you can’t say yes to everybody.”

One request Ovechkin did not turn down was the annual charity golf tournament, the Caps Care Classic, in Springfield on Monday. He was the co-chairman of the event. Although he did not actually compete, he grabbed a club and practiced and, after hitting a bunch of balls, nailed a hole-in-one. He had never played golf before.

Asked why he makes himself so accessible, Ovechkin said, “I love to talk to people. I love to see my fans. I love to do these things.”

But there is a deeper reason — a hero-worshipping kid he recalls from not all that long ago.

“That’s why I do it,” he said. “I remember when I was young and I saw [Russian and NHL star Igor] Larionov and my eyes were so big. I remember the moment when you see the stars and your eyes are so wide open.”

They still are. Having never visited this country before he was 19, Ovechkin immediately focused on soaking up his new environment. He insisted last season on rooming with a North American roommate — not a Russian — on the road so he could learn English. His brother, Michael, came over with him and helped. Ovechkin’s linguistic skills are ever-improving (When asked how he thinks he’s doing with English, he asked, “What do you think?”). And, he clearly is one of the guys, in any language, in the locker room.

His public appearances aside, Ovechkin said he prefers to mostly stay at home during the season and live a low-key life. He says it more than once, as if to remind people of his seriousness about the game.

His parents, Michael and Tatiana, currently are visiting, as is his Russian girlfriend, Veronika Duvanskaia, a student at the University of Economics in St. Petersburg whom he met at a birthday party about a year ago. She wants to become a human resources manager.

They dine out on occasion and go to movies (He loved Jackass II and is a fan of actress Kate Hudson). He doesn’t watch much television, he said, except for ESPN. But Ovechkin spent the summer having fun, a rigorous five-week strength and conditioning session in Toronto notwithstanding. In addition to going back to Moscow, he spent about two weeks vacationing in Vancouver, Cyprus and France, where he appeared on a TV show featuring four celebrities competing in various kooky events, including teasing a bull.

“I met a lot of famous people,” he said, bypassing the fact that he, in fact, was one of them.

Ovechkin is not immune to the superstar trappings but by all accounts does not go overboard. He recently bought a home in Arlington, which he shares with his brother (He also keeps a home in Moscow). Someone said he had at least a dozen televisions, a rumor he vehemently denied.

“Two TVs,” he said. “Somebody joked.”

He also purchased a new BMW M6. He likes hip-hop, including Eminem and 50 Cent. He loves filet mignon and green beans.

“That’s his go-to dinner,” teammate Steve Eminger said. “He’d have filet every day, I think.”

Ovechkin was asked what he enjoys most about living here.

“Quiet, easy,” he said. “You don’t know what it was in Russia. This is a quiet city. You must go to Russia. Everybody’s running, everybody’s screaming. When I go to Russia I have fun. When I come here I don’t have fun because I concentrate on hockey, hockey, hockey. It’s different roles, here and Russia.”

Those who know and work with Ovechkin insist that the sudden onset of success, fame and fortune has left him unchanged as a person.

“I don’t think anything’s gone to his head,” Eminger said. “He’s still the same character.”

Caps coach Glen Hanlon agreed.

“I think his mother would kill him if he would ever change,” Hanlon half-joked. “He’s so well-grounded and he has such great parenting. He has a support group that keeps him grounded, that keeps him focused. I think it’s a huge plus for us and a huge plus for him.”

The Capitals went to great lengths to facilitate Ovechkin’s adjustment. McPhee even took his prized rookie into his home for a week when he reported early for his rookie season.

But it always comes back to Michael and Tatiana, mom and dad. When someone mentioned to Ovechkin that a lot of people say he has a nice family, he said, “Everyone has a nice family.”

No, he was told, everyone does not.

“Well, I’m lucky,” he said. “I’m a lucky, crazy guy.”

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