- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

They made quite the quintet — five guys in full body armor moving at exhilarating speeds in tight quarters.

For Alex Ovechkin and four of his Washington Capitals buddies, this was not a typical day at the office. Instead of skates and sticks, Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Staffan Kronwall and Karl Alzner wanted a thrill away from the hockey rink. They found it — on a Go-Kart track.

“It was so much fun,” said Green, one of the organizers of the off-day excursion to Allsports Grand Prix in Dulles last month. “They were FAST — like racing ones. It was sick. It was like real racing — we weren’t just putzing around out there.”

What was interesting wasn’t five professional hockey players hanging out and driving Go-Karts at 35 mph, but rather the composition of the group: two Swedes, two Canadians and one of the most famous Russians in the sporting world.

The Caps’ roster is a smorgasbord of countries, a group fit for a United Nations summit with players from, at times, seven or eight different global outposts.

At the epicenter is a contingent of Russians that will go five deep on a team that will dress 20 players for each game in the playoffs. That figure is remarkable in itself: The number of Russians in the NHL in recent years has fallen to half of what it was at the beginning of the decade. There have, in fact, been fewer than 30 in the entire league at times this season.

The decline certainly isn’t apparent in Washington. The Caps field more Russians than any other team, and they all play a critical role in the team’s remarkable, newfound success.

Quick rise to the top

The Capitals made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998, but by the 2003-04 season were one of the worst teams in the league.

That began to change when the team drafted Ovechkin with the first overall pick in the 2004 draft. Ovechkin quickly established himself as hockey’s most exciting player — and perhaps its best, too. Last season, Ovechkin scored more goals than any player had in 12 years, won both league MVP trophies and signed a 13-year, $124 million contract — all before the age of 23.

Led by Ovechkin, the Caps left behind three straight last-place finishes in the Southeast Division last season and surged to first. This season will bring another division crown — and a legitimate shot at hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.

Along the way, the Caps became the “it” team in a town whose sports conversations usually begin and end with the Washington Redskins. The Caps routinely sell out Verizon Center, drawing fans to F Street to see one of the NHL’s youngest and most talented teams.

Ovechkin serves as the engine of the Capitals’ on-ice success and as the dynamic face of a once-beleaguered franchise turned vibrant. But he also plays a more subtle role in the Caps’ success: Ovechkin, with a little help from fellow superstar Sergei Fedorov, is the conduit between the team’s Russian and non-Russian players.

“Each team seems to have a couple of Czech guys or Slovakian or, like our team, some Russian guys,” assistant coach Dean Evason said. “They tend to stick together — like they go to dinners together and stuff — and some coaches don’t like that because it can get clique-y. As far as our guys, they’re great. They interact with everyone really well. I don’t know what happens on other teams, but I think it is a big credit to Alexander Ovechkin.”

Ovechkin perhaps is the greatest hockey player in the world now, and he also is one of the sport’s great characters — his dynamic personality translates to any language.

Alexander Semin, another young and sublimely talented kid from the Motherland, is his closest friend on the team. But Ovechkin also is close to Backstrom and Green, and they enjoy hanging out — whether tailgating at a Redskins game, taking in a mixed martial arts match or joining the mosh pit at a Metallica concert.

“I had him out there mosh-pitting a little bit,” Green said. “It was nice. He enjoyed it.”

In years past, managers of NHL teams — most of them Canadian, all of them North American — hesitated to put many players from the former Soviet Union on their rosters.

The stereotype was simple: Russian players keep too much to themselves, show too little emotion and aren’t always willing to make necessary sacrifices for team goals.

Think Ivan Drago on skates.

The Detroit Red Wings wrecked the stereotype in the mid-1990s when, with the help of as many as five Russian players (including a young Fedorov), they became the pre-eminent NHL power.

“I was younger, but I was a very serious young man — not like Sasha and Sasha [Ovechkin and Semin],” Fedorov said. “They like to joke around a lot. I was not brought up that way — it was a different generation. There was mutual respect there, too, but it was just a little bit different. It was a little more serious then.”

As with the famed “Russian Five” in the Motor City, the Caps contingent is crucial to success. But these new-age comrades are blazing a different trail: They’re equally capable of connecting with each other without distancing themselves from the rest of the team.

Hockey’s rock star

Not long ago, Fedorov was what Ovechkin is today: hockey’s rock star. Endorsements, fancy cars, a certain famous Russian tennis player on his arm — Fedorov was one of the last graduates of the Soviet hockey system and one of the first from his country to reach celebrity status on this side of the pond.

His path to NHL success was vastly different than that of his countrymen on the Caps.

Fedorov grew up in a small town, Ovechkin and Semin in larger cities. He was raised in a sports family — cross-country skiing, tennis and street hockey filled his childhood.

Fedorov left his parents at 13 for a hockey school 2,500 miles from home and eventually joined CSKA Red Army, one of the top professional teams in Russia. The Red Wings drafted Fedorov in 1989, and a year later, while at the Goodwill Games in Seattle, he defected to the United States and left the crumbling communist regime behind.

“I received a letter that I got drafted and about how players live in North America and how they play in front of 20,000 fans,” Fedorov said. “I thought about it for about a year, and I thought it was a good move for me personally even though I was only 19.”

Over the course of a Hall of Fame career, Fedorov has scored more goals than any other Russian-born player in league history — a record that is likely to last only until Ovechkin and, perhaps, Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers surpass it.

Fedorov also adapted so well to American culture that along the way he became more comfortable doing interviews in English than his native tongue.

After three-plus years of discontent with teams in Anaheim and Columbus, Fedorov joined the Caps in February 2008.

He was rejuvenated. Fedorov was glad to get away from rigid, defense-first coaches, but he was especially happy to join a team with young Russian talents like Ovechkin and Semin.

“I think what brings us together is a mutual respect and a mutual understanding and admiration of each other,” Fedorov said. “Obviously, the younger generation is much funnier than us, but [Viktor Kozlov and I] try to stay young with them.”

At 39, Fedorov on some nights looks 10 years younger on the ice.

Fedorov also draws a smaller, personal benefit from his association with the club’s young Russians: The chance to catch up on the current slang of his native language and regain a better comfort level speaking it.

“In that regard I do get to speak Russian more,” he said. “On the ice, I still speak English with everybody. It is not like I speak Russian all the time now. I try to interact with everybody, and it is definitely more comfortable here. It is a totally different atmosphere than in Anaheim or Columbus. It is just very good.”

A powerful icon

The addition of Fedorov, an icon in the sport, had a tremendously positive influence on the Caps last season.

General manager George McPhee was looking for a replacement for an injured player, but he never expected to land a leader of Fedorov’s caliber, a player who could set such a great example for his younger teammates.

Fedorov’s impact is most apparent on Semin, a 25-year-old emerging star from the industrial city of Krasnoyarsk. Semin can make magic happen on a 200-by-85 sheet of ice as well as anyone — including best friend Ovechkin in the stall next to him.

Ovechkin was an instant sensation, but coaxing greatness out of the mercurial Semin has taken longer.

A lockout erased the 2004-05 season, and when the NHL’s players returned Semin did not. He opted instead to spend a year in Russia despite pleas — and legal action — from the Caps.

Semin eventually returned, and he would put on a virtuoso display one night and a disappearing act the next. He chafed at learning English — or at least at using it to communicate with teammates and coaches.

When Fedorov arrived, a profound change took place. The number of dominant performances by Semin grew, and the days when he made coach Bruce Boudreau want to yank out his few remaining hairs dwindled.

“He really looks up to [Fedorov],” Green said. “They are really close. Anytime [Ovechkin and Semin] are getting out of line, he will say something to them. That’s what they need sometimes. They are two crazy guys, and he kind of keeps them under wraps. It is good.

“I was the same way when he first came here. He is a star in the NHL. There are guys that are just stars. He just had that presence, and then obviously what he has done in the league is incredible. You have to listen to everything he has to say, and you can ask him questions because he is wise — very wise.”

Away from the ice, Semin now is less introverted. Case in point: A visit by Semin and Ovechkin with kids at a local hospital earlier this season. Ovechkin played a boxing game with a child on Nintendo Wii, flailing his arms in unorthodox fashion.

Ovechkin was mocking the fighting style of Semin, who a few days earlier took part in his first NHL scrap and earned plenty of ribbing for his, um, unconventional technique. But instead of feeling embarrassed by Ovechkin’s jest, Semin broke into hearty laughter.

“Obviously, [communicating with teammates] is easier,” Semin said through an interpreter. “I wouldn’t say it was a lot harder [before Ovechkin, Kozlov and Fedorov joined the team]. The problem was my own because I didn’t know how to interact with the other players, and everything was new to me. It was difficult in that respect.”

He still is naturally shy, but other teammates besides Ovechkin and Kozlov interact with him more. He still doesn’t speak English to reporters, but he understands the language and knows more than he lets on.

Semin is not yet a finished product — on ice or off — but his great progress gives reason for hope of more to come.

“I think we communicate a lot better,” Boudreau said. “I think he can speak and understand a lot more than he says. I think we’re on a good level. Him and Alex are best friends, and they play together like it when they’re on a line. He’s been an easy guy to coach for me now.”

Putting down D.C. roots

Kozlov, the sixth overall pick in the 1993 draft, also was burdened with great expectations early in his career. He never became the dominant force scouts thought his combination of size and skilled hands would produce, but the 34-year-old Kozlov has fostered a long and productive career.

He’s traveled from city to city without truly taking root with one team, though his family has settled in South Florida, where he played for the Panthers for parts of seven seasons. Quiet by nature and more comfortable speaking his native language, Kozlov blends into the background of a locker room.

Kozlov signed a two-year contract with Washington before last season. With more Russian teammates to help include him, he has left more of his imprint on this team.

“I think he’s definitely a little more vocal,” said Caps defenseman Tom Poti, a teammate of Kozlov on the New York Islanders. “I think he just has a better comfort level when you have more guys from your homeland around. I’ve definitely seen more of a funnier side from him, and he’s definitely a lot more vocal than when I played with him before.”

Kozlov has spent much of this season on the team’s top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. His statistics in two seasons in Washington are not a departure from his career norms, but Boudreau referred to him as “a round peg in a round hole” — a strong fit playing alongside the team’s precocious tandem.

He is set to become an unrestricted free agent again this summer, and whether he and the Caps continue their mutually beneficial relationship is to be determined.

“Yes it is,” Kozlov said when asked if he’s had more fun in the District than previous stops. “In my experience, it is. That doesn’t mean the other teams were bad, but this is such a fun team with fun guys. Plus, we are winning and that helps.

“We are all together here. It is a young team, and with a young team it is like a family the way we spend time together. Like I am married, but I still like to spend time with all the guys. We have fun times — lots of jokes.”

An open pipeline

Simeon Varlamov, one of the top goaltending prospects in the world, is the first of a next wave of players that should extend the Caps’ pipeline into Russia for years to come.

Many NHL teams either shied from selecting Russians in recent drafts or rated them severely below where talent normally would dictate. Russian amateurs now are less certain to come to (and stay in) North America because of eroded relations between the NHL and the Russian Hockey Federation and the advent of the Kontinental Hockey League.

McPhee and the Caps, however, don’t balk at these players because of their birth certificates. The Capitals selected Dmitry Kugryshev in the second round of the 2008 draft, and the high-scoring forward is in the midst of a successful rookie season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he’s adapting to a different style of hockey and a new culture.

The Caps’ openness to Russian players comes back to one guy: Ovechkin. Ovi’s contract will keep him in the District for three-plus presidential terms, and the Caps reason that younger Russians will want to come to Washington to play with their country’s greatest star.

Ovechkin does his part: He hosted Varlamov, Kugryshev and Viktor Dovgan at his house in Arlington during training camp and generally serves as a mentor to his younger countrymen.

“They spend all day at my house with me, and my mom cook for everybody,” Ovechkin said during camp. “I just try to help young guys out. I remember when I came here [Dainius Zubrus] helped me a lot, and I just try to take care of them.”

Added Kurgryshev through an interpreter: “When I was younger, my favorite player was Mario Lemieux, but as I’ve gotten older I think the Russian colony here in Washington has become my favorites.”

Ovechkin isn’t a rah-rah leader — the guy who delivers the fire-and-brimstone speech. What he does is connect people from different backgrounds and different countries.

After every practice, many players participate in a game affectionately dubbed “Juice Boy.” Participants must place a shot in each of the top corners of the net from a predetermined point on the ice.

The game goes on until only one player has not successfully hit both corners. The last man standing is Juice Boy for the day. The punishment: Juice Boy is required to serve sports drinks to each player at his locker.

The contest’s popularity has grown tremendously. The game, once mostly the province of a small collection of guys who played for Boudreau on the Hershey minor league team, now includes most of the roster.

One day last month, the loser was Ovechkin — the man who scored 65 goals last season, the man who can hurl pucks at nearly 100 mph with his stick. There he was in the dressing room, Juice Boy, delivering drinks to his teammates.

“A lot of the Russian guys I’ve played with are very quiet and kind of keep to themselves,” Poti said. “They didn’t interact with our team that much, but our guys are kind of front and center with everything that is going on. I think it is easier for everyone to mesh and kind of get to know everyone when you have Russians who act like our guys typically do. There’s a lot camaraderie and guys are always doing stuff with each other. Nobody is on kind of the outskirts of the team.”

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