Looking to Tear Down that Stanley Cup Wall
ARLINGTON, Va. - The Cold War, overarching theme of the second half of the 20th century, is long gone.
Washington Capitals left winger Alex Ovechkin is living, skating, body-checking proof.
Who could have guessed when he was born in the midst of its chill that a son of Moscow would emerge one day as the most popular athlete in that other capital city?
"Amazing, isn't it?" says Ted Leonsis, the capitalist who owns the Capitals. "Alex is a global citizen."
Ovechkin, 24, is the best player on the team with the NHL's best record, meaning he could very well emerge as an overarching theme of the Stanley Cup playoffs that begin today.
He'll talk about that cold war, if not the other.
"I don't like to look back on history," he says.
He'd rather make some, beginning Thursday, when his top-seeded Caps meet the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
"It's unbelievable moment for players who play in playoffs," he says. "When you have chance to win, you have to take this chance."
The Caps had such a chance last season but lost a second-round series to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games. That opened the door for Pens superstar Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin's rival and antagonist, to win his first Stanley Cup.
Then, in the Vancouver Olympics, Crosby added a gold medal for Canada, which eliminated Russia and Ovechkin.
Bring all of that up, and Ovechkin shrugs.
"That only means," he says in Russian, "there is something to strive for."
The word he uses is stremit'sya. It means to seek, aim for, aspire to - or strive for. But it carries extra meaning, too, expressing special yearning to try to get to a certain place or a coveted goal.
USA TODAY used an interpreter to talk to Ovechkin, although he speaks English.
"Not so well, but I try," he says in the half of the interview done in English. "I can give interview in Russian and English, but Russian more comfortable for sure."
The interpreter was Sean R. Roberts, an associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University and the nephew of this reporter.
He also translated for the other Caps who are Russian: right wing Alexander Semin, who speaks little English, and goalie Semyon Varlamov, who speaks some.
So is their countryman and teammate the best in the world?
"I play together with him," Semin says. "And he is also Russian. So I think yes."
"He shows it every day with his play," Varlamov says.
Ovechkin's rough-and-tumble play reveals him as a throwback to an era long before Russians played in the NHL, when great goal scorers such as Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard skated with a mean streak often missing from later stars such as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
"When you do something, you want to do it the best," Ovechkin says. "When I was a little kid, my dream was to be one of the best players in the world."
Is he the best?
"Uh, I try," he says, flashing his familiar gap-toothed grin. "I do my best. I try."
Shades of the greats
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau thinks the greatness of his star pupil can be measured not just in jaw-dropping goals and teeth-rattling checks but also in the anticipatory hush that comes over a crowd when he gathers the puck for a rush up the ice.
"The crowd lets out a hoooh," Boudreau says, puffing out his cheeks to simulate the sound, "like they're expecting something great to happen. I don't hear that with anybody else" in today's game.
"That's the way I felt when Bobby Orr touched the puck. That's the way I felt when Wayne Gretzky touched the puck. But nobody else."
It is funny Boudreau should mention those two: Ovechkin has a chance to join them in an exclusive club. Orr won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player three consecutive times in the early 1970s. Gretzky won it eight consecutive times in the 1980s. No one else has won it more than twice in a row.
Ovechkin won the last two and is among several strong candidates this season. His 50 goals ranked him third behind Crosby and the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos (51), and his 109 points tied him for second with Crosby behind the Vancouver Canucks' Henrik Sedin (112).
Stamkos and Sedin played all 82 games and Crosby 81. Ovechkin played 72 games, losing six to injury and four to suspension.
"If I were to win (again), of course it would be a big event for me, the entire organization of the Washington Capitals and Russian hockey in general," he says. "But right now it is a little early to start talking about that. One has to wait until awards are given."
He's right. Though the votes are due today, the winner won't be announced until late June.
This turns out to be a theme for Ovechkin: He does not like to look ahead - to a potential rematch with Crosby's Penguins, say - or even as far behind as the Olympics, let alone to that time of tension known as the Cold War.
Its political intrigue and military brinkmanship stretched roughly from the years after World War II until the breakup of the USSR in 1991.
Ovechkin was born in 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the USSR's Communist Party.
Gorbachev ushered in a series of reforms that led to glasnost, an openness that increased contact between Soviet citizens and the Western world. The first Soviet player in the NHL was Sergei Priakin of the Calgary Flames in 1988; a half-dozen or so more came in 1989, including Sergei Federov, who stayed long enough to be Ovechkin's teammate last season and the one before.
Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million deal in January 2008. He was the NHL's No. 1 overall draft pick in 2004.
USA TODAY talked to Ovechkin last week on the day President Obama signed a nuclear treaty with Russia, an echo of the one Gorbachev and former president Ronald Reagan signed in Washington in 1987, two months after Ovechkin's second birthday.
"I don't like to look into the past," Ovechkin says. "Who fought? Who didn't fight? What happened? Now it is a completely different world, a completely different situation. So I am very happy with where I am."
Popularity not universal
When Ovechkin scored his 50th goal of the season Friday, Capitals play-by-play voice Joe Beninati exclaimed, "The man with the golden gun."
The reference is to a novel and a movie about James Bond, fictional Cold War spy, even if Ovechkin looks more like a Bond villain of that era, with his wide brow, scruffy growth and oft-broken nose, which leans a little left.
Ovechkin is a villain in many NHL cities. His suspensions came after questionable hits - a knee-on-knee collision with the Carolina Hurricanes' Tim Gleason in November and a check from behind that left the Chicago Blackhawks' Brian Campbell with a broken collarbone and broken ribs in March. Ovechkin lost more than $330,000 in pay.
"It is just sometimes that when people are playing hard, people get hurt," Ovechkin says. "But it doesn't change my game."
It did at first, Boudreau says.
"What happened is he stopped playing his game," Boudreau says. "He was worried about hurting people. And I said, 'You have to continue to hit. You have to continue to be you. That's the only way that you're great.' Well, not the only way, but a whole element of his game is being bigger and stronger than most people."
Ovechkin (6-2, 235 pounds) happily takes on all comers. In the Olympics he toppled Zdeno Chara (6-9, 255 pounds) and Jaromir Jagr (6-3, 242 pounds) with YouTube-worthy hits. But he was deeply disappointed at coming away with no medal.
"I don't like to talk about it," he says. "It's closed. . . . It was pretty hard time for us, for me. But right now it's done. So right now playoffs coming. So, new game."
His mother won gold medals in basketball for the Soviet Union in Montreal in 1976 and in Moscow in 1980 (when Cold War drama led to a U.S. boycott). He dearly wants gold of his own.
The 2014 Winter Games are in Sochi, Russia. The NHL has not said if its players will go. Ovechkin has said he'll play anyway, though he stops short of that this time: "We'll see. I want to, but let's talk when it gets closer."
The irony of Washington fans embracing a son of Moscow goes both ways: Many Russian fans love the team that plays in the capital city of their former enemy.
"Last year we had five Russians, now we have three, but it is still considered the most Russian team in the NHL," Varlamov says. "A lot of Russian fans root for the Capitals. A lot love Washington and worry for us."
Ovechkin wears a Russia T-shirt as he sits in front of his locker at the Capitals practice facility. Many of the fans who come to practices and games wear Caps jerseys featuring his No. 8.
He wears No. 8 as homage to his mother. Not many NHL players can say the same.
"Probably they don't have mother who was twice Olympic champion," Ovechkin says.