Saturday, June 14, 2008

Alex Ovechkin stood on the steps of the Wilson Building on Friday afternoon in front of hundreds of Washington Capitals fans, smiling as he accepted the key to the city from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty while the crowd chanted, “M-V-P, M-V-P.” He wanted to give something back to Capitals fans.

“Today I got the key to the city, and today I am president of the city,” he told the crowd. “So there will be no speeding tickets in the city today because there is no speed limit.”

There was no speed limit for Ovechkin over the previous 24 hours. The night before, he was the toast of hockey in Toronto when he collected a case of trophies - the Hart Trophy for NHL MVP, and the Lester B. Pearson Award, given to the most outstanding player in the league as voted on by his peers. He already had won the Art Ross and Maurice Richard trophies for leading the league in points and goals.

Friday he was the toast of the District, with the ceremony by city officials and later in the night a party honoring him with Capitals owner Ted Leonsis serving as host.

All four trophies were on display on steps of the Wilson Building as the crowd spilled onto Pennsylvania Avenue, with sightseeing buses slowing down to get a glimpse of a bonus attraction they did not expect.

“Thank you,” Ovechkin said as the crowd cheered and jockeyed for better photo position. “It’s a pleasure to be here and thank you for your support.”

For Capitals fans, the Ovechkin celebration was one final chance to bask in the glow of an enjoyable season, even if it did end with a Game 7 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The remarkable stretch run by the Capitals to make the playoffs and win the Southeast Division on the final day of the season has energized fans in the area.

The night before, more than 1,000 Capitals fans came to Verizon Center, mostly to watch together on the giant video screen a night of glory for the franchise.

They got autographs signed by Brent Johnson, Steve Eminger, Boyd Gordon and former Capitals great Rod Langway, and some of the kids lined up to play in the two Moonbounces on the arena floor.

But they were there primarily to share in the celebration. They stood and cheered when Ovechkin won the Pearson trophy. They stomped and roared when Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau captured the Jack Adams trophy for coach of the year. And of course they chanted, “M-V-P, M-V-P.”

Craig O’Connor from Hagerstown, Md., was there, with his 5-year-old son Owen, wearing an Ovechkin shirt, buying Capitals season tickets for next season.

“My little man is really getting into it,” O’Connor said. “He’s nuts about hockey and his whole room is Ovechkin. We weren’t going to miss this.”

It struck me while watching the awards presentation just how big of an impact and presence Ovechkin is on the sports landscape.

Cammi Granato was one of the presenters. I met Granato in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, when she led the American women to the gold medal in the first women’s ice hockey competition in the Games. She spoke of how she and her brothers used to recreate in their basement the 1980 Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid, when the underdog American team upset the powerful Russians in the Winter Olympics.

This was a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Chicago who was clearly moved and influenced by the United States victory over the Russians, at a time when tensions between the two countries were high. They were the hated and feared Soviets.

Now a Russian hockey player who plays in the capital of the United States is celebrated as the best player in the NHL. And a 5-year-old boy from rural Hagerstown, Md., whose room is filled with Ovechkin posters, watched the giant video screen at Verizon Center and cheered as Ovechkin was named the league’s MVP. His dreams are of a Russian hockey player.

This is how things change.

There have been Russian stars in the NHL before - Pavel Bure and of course Sergei Fedorov, formerly of the Detroit Red Wings and this season with the Capitals. But they didn’t approach the level of stardom Ovechkin is reaching.

He is truly the first Russian superstar in sports in North America since the fall of the Soviet Empire. His legacy is just beginning.

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