He stands just outside the entrance to Verizon Center, Marlboro in one hand, iPhone in the other. He stares straight ahead, exchanging brief glances with passers-by.
Do they recognize him? Do they see the similarity - the wide face, the way his eyebrows run together? Do they know that this short, soft-bellied man with the tousled hair and the 5 o’clock shadow is but a few strands of DNA removedfrom the greatest hockey player on the planet?
No, they pass him by, barely acknowledging his existence as he flicks the cigarette butt to the street, stamps it out and lights another. Got to get that second one in quick before halftime ends. He takes two deep drags, then glances at his phone.
“Time to go,” Mikhail Ovechkin says through a thick Russian accent. “Game starts soon.”
He walks back into the arena’s atrium, where giant posters proclaim his younger sibling a hero. He weaves his way through the souvenir shop and past the wall of red Washington Capitals jerseys that bear his last name. He trudges down the narrow stairway, beyond the spacious locker room where his kid brother holds court as the Caps’ leading scorer.
At the end of the hallway, Mikhail arrives at his office - a cramped, windowless room with two television sets, a wooden table and a few folding chairs. It is here, among cylindrical stacks of DVDs and worn-out pairs of Adidas, that Alex Ovechkin’s 26-year-old brother spends his days and nights cutting video as manager of team operations for the Washington Mystics.
Mikhail watches the Mystics struggle against the Sacramento Monarchs on the monitor of an outdated laptop, periodically freezing the frame when Alana Beard makes a pretty pass or Nikki Blue commits a turnover.
“You don’t want to watch this,” he says, stopping the footage with the tiny remote in his right hand. “It’s boring.”
Roughly 24 hours from now, some 550 miles to the north in Toronto, his younger brother will accept the Hart Memorial Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award, the clear choice as the NHL MVP. Mikhail won’t be there. He has to be here to do his job, to live his life. Because as much as it might seem like Mikhail Ovechkin exists shrouded by his brother’s long shadow - residing in the same city, working in the same building - Mikhail is trying hard to have a life of his own.
He no longer lives in the $1.5 million Arlington apartment the two brothers shared during Alex’s rookie year, having moved into his own modest home in Ashburn. He takes the metro and walks to work rather than zooming around the District in a flashy sports car. Tonight, he is dressed not in Alex’s swank Streetwear clothing line or in the sleek Dolce & Gabbana garb his brother fancies but in a red Harley Davidson t-shirt, wrinkled khaki pants and brown hiking boots.
“He doesn’t ask me to get him things or anything like that,” Alex says when asked about his brother. “He never use my money.”
Mystics coach Tree Rollins and chief operating officer Greg Bibb say Mikhail’s position with the organization is based on the merits of his passionate work ethic and sharp eye for basketball talent - not his last name.
“He’s very self-motivated,” says Bibb, who hired Ovechkin at the beginning of the 2008 season. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Bibb and Rollins are thankful for the thankless job Ovechkin does in the video room, but they also appreciate his trusted advice on foreign prospects. This isn’t Mikhail’s first dance on hardwood. Before joining the Mystics, he worked six years for Dynamo Moscow, the women’s professional team for which his mother, Tatiana, serves as president. He toured Europe with the team and learned about the game from Tatiana, a former two-time Olympic gold medalist and Dynamo star.
“He loves women’s basketball,” Alex says.
Aside from his work with the Mystics, Mikhail says he pays little attention to sports. He attends the majority of Caps home games but is far from passionate about the sport that has transformed his baby brother into a worldwide celebrity.
When asked to name his favorite team, he stares blankly at the floor.
“I like the Detroit Red Wings,” he says finally, sans enthusiasm. “‘Cause they win everything.”
He says he never has been competitive - not during the soccer matches and dodgeball games he played with Alex as a small child, not in youth league basketball during grade school, not during a brief experiment with water polo at age 10. Sometime during early adolescence, he approached Tatiana and his father, Mikhail, a professional soccer player, and told them he was finished with organized sports.
“I regret it a little bit,” says Mikhail, who claims he beats his brother in “about half” of the one-on-one hoops contests they play occasionally. “Sometimes I wished I played.”
He has watched his brother’s rise to fame with wonder. He was by Alex’s side in Raleigh, N.C., the day Washington took him with the first pick in the 2004 draft. He was watching on TV from the house in Arlington when Alex scored “The Goal” against the Phoenix Coyotes a year and a half later. He enjoyed the fruits of Alex’s labor when he came to keep his brother company in 2005 - living in the Arlington mansion, traveling to Dallas for the NHL All-Star Game, hobnobbing with Russian celebrities in France on the set of a reality TV show Alex starred in. But aside from the occasional trip to a nightclub, he rarely ventures out anymore with his brother.
Mikhail spends his free time with his girlfriend, Lauren, whom he doesn’t like to talk about. He likes watching movies, but he has no particular favorites. He won’t speak about what kind of books he likes to read or video games he enjoys. He can’t name a favorite food or color. Given his reticent manner, it would be easy to paint Mikhail Ovechkin as a bitter man, brooding and covetous. But this is no Fredo-and-Michael Corleone drama. Mikhail says he never once has been envious of his brother.
“Why would I?” he says, his voice rising from a quiet monotone, emotion appearing on his face for the first time. “Jealousy is bad thing. I am happy for him. This is his dream.”
No, this is simply a story of two different men, leading separate lives.
“He’s much more reserved than Alex,” says Caps director of media relations Nate Ewell, who knows both brothers personally. “They are extremely close though.”
Says Mikhail: “I’m more calm. He’s more emotional.”
He watches on his laptop as the Mystics fall in a close game. He doesn’t speak or change expression as he stops the tape, grabs his Marlboros and heads for the door. It is 9 p.m., but he still has at least another two hours of splicing video ahead of him. He will be back early the next morning.
He begins his hasty ascent to the street - through the narrow hallways, past the gleaming Caps logos, the banners, the jerseys. Aside from a few nods and waves from fellow Mystics employees, he exits Verizon incognito. In the coming weeks, Alex will travel back to Russia for the offseason. Mikhail will spend the summer in the District, a world away from his little brother and - as he is on his cigarette breaks, on his trips through Verizon, at work in his office - alone.
“I am happy for him,” Alex says. “I hope he don’t stop and keeps moving forward. I told him he can do whatever he wants.”