Alex Ovechkin is a prisoner, and he is ready to escape.
OK, maybe it was just an act. Ovechkin spent part of his summer vacation acting as an inmate in a forthcoming music video for Russian recording artist Vlad Topalov. Still, Ovechkin’s visibility worldwide is rising as fast as the fortunes of his Washington Capitals.
At 23, the kid from Moscow isn’t a kid anymore, and he is fast on a path to becoming more than just one of the world’s top hockey players.
“My friends call me and say, ‘If you want to be in a video, you can go over there,’” Ovechkin said. “I say, ‘Well, yeah, why not? It is something new for me.’”
It was just a small slice of the Summer of Ovechkin. After leading Russia to its first world championship in 15 years, Ovechkin returned to North America to collect four major trophies. He also launched his own clothing line and received a key to the city from District mayor Adrian Fenty.
Once his offseason officially began, it was a chance for a little vacationing in Turkey and Dubai - with plenty of time for the music video, a trip to the Beijing Olympics to help promote the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, and multiple photo shoots for American and Canadian magazines.
Ovechkin’s ascension as one of the faces of hockey on this continent and of all sports in Russia can help boost exposure for the Caps and ultimately, the franchise’s bottom line. But should there be concern about the team’s star attraction and his extracurricular activities?
“You worry about him like a father worries about one of his kids,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Not at this point. I think I’m pretty sure that hockey is his focus. The way he has played in the preseason proves that it is. Maybe as the team has more success and he has the success he’s had, then as we become more visible people are going to want him to do more things. Then maybe we might have to talk to his handlers or Alex and say, ‘Slow it down a little bit,’ but as this stage it is no problem.”
Added general manager George McPhee: “Never with this player - when we signed him to this [13-year, $124 million] contract, one of the things I said was we would never have to worry about his commitment. He did all of these other things this summer, and just look at him. He’s 230 pounds of solid muscle.”
How Ovechkin had time to craft his chiseled physique is a credit to his work ethic and energy which allows him to juggle his on- and off-ice demands.
Helping the Russian national team to a gold medal was enough to make Ovechkin a hero in his homeland for a long time, but when asked to travel to Beijing to help support Russian athletes and promote the Sochi games, he agreed.
He spent three days in China hanging out with the Russian athletes in their dormitory and posing for plenty of photos with a “Sochi 2014” shirt on.
“Beijing was good, but there is too many people and the weather was terrible. You can’t even breathe over there,” Ovechkin said. “I’m always going to support my country, especially with the Olympic games or world championships. It was pretty cool, but I didn’t have much time.”
While Ovechkin embraced his role as an ambassador for Russian sport, soon the time could come for his opinion to matter in hockey. Like the great players before him, Ovechkin’s opinion on the rules or the state of the game will make headlines. One cause close to Ovechkin’s heart might be continuing the involvement of NHL players in the Olympics.
While Ovechkin is sure to be one of the headliners at the 2010 games in Vancouver, NHL players may not be allowed to play in 2014.
“I hope we are going to play, that NHL players are going to play,” Ovechkin said. “If we don’t play, if no one from NHL plays, it won’t be good tournament for anybody. Everybody wants to see the great players and great hockey and all the famous players. I think fans want it.”
Another part of Ovechkin’s increased visibility is the desire for more knowledge about him, and specifically his personal life.
When he showed up at the NHL awards show with Igor Larionov’s daughter, Alyonka, as his guest, photos of the pair immediately made the rounds on the Internet. Where and when he shows up with Victoria Lopyreva, a former Miss Russia, also has garnered plenty of interest.
“You know, everybody has fun. Especially when I am in Moscow, like I don’t think about media or what people think or are talking about me,” Ovechkin said. “I just want to have fun and I am just normal people. If I go out with different girls, it doesn’t matter. I have a thousand girls, and then it is ‘Oh, now who’s my girlfriend?’ If I go out with my friends and I go watch a movie with my friends’ girls, then what is … it is no situation. I think it is good. I think it is normal thing.”
Should Ovechkin need advice about how to deal with queries about his life beyond hockey, a couple of his teammates have had plenty of experience in dealing with it. Sergei Fedorov was once in Ovechkin’s place - the most talented (and famous) Russian hockey player in the world, and Federov’s relationship with Anna Kournikova was played out in tabloids and sports pages alike.
Jose Theodore went through it as well during his time with the Montreal Canadiens. He had to answer about paparazzi photos and trips to nightclubs and other distractions most hockey players don’t have to worry about.
“No, I don’t like to talk to them about my personal life - who I want to date, or like who is my girlfriend right now,” Ovechkin said. “It my personal thing, and I think it doesn’t matter.”
So Ovechkin continues to move forward. He has a close-knit support group - away from the rink with his family and managers and at it with his pals on the team.
There will be more opportunities for Ovechkin to branch out and explore. Perhaps his role in the music video could lead to other acting offers. But for now, Ovechkin wants to keep his attention (at least the majority of it) on scoring goals and winning hockey games.
“No, no, not really - I just want to play hockey,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t want to be a movie star or something like that. I’ve heard some players stop playing hockey and go to movies, but I don’t want to do this. My life is hockey, no question.”