ARLINGTON, Va. -- While visiting Alex Ovechkin in Russia last month, Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates had an opportunity to experience firsthand just how woven into the fabric of the nation his captain is.
"When I was over there, the president called him," Oates recalled Thursday. "Obama doesn't call me too often."
Ovechkin's importance to his home country will be further displayed worldwide Sunday when he is the first Russian to carry the Olympic Torch once it is ignited in Olympia, Greece, in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"I'm very excited and I've been waiting this day since I got the news they invited me because it was pretty hard to do that with the schedule and all that stuff," Ovechkin said after Thursday's practice. "It's very big honor for me to be the first guy."
The whirlwind trip has been weeks in the making, but was only finalized days before the official ceremony.
The plan is for Ovechkin to play in the Capitals' penultimate preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday at Verizon Center before leaving for Greece immediately after. He will miss the preseason finale Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks and return to Washington on Sunday, a scheduled day off. He will join his teammates for practice Monday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex ahead of Tuesday's regular season opener in Chicago.
"He might have a little jet lag, but big picture, we let our players play in the Olympics for a reason, which is obviously a unique thing, and it's very risky but we let them do it," Oates said. "Globally for hockey, it's a great thing and our team's got to survive that just like you've got to survive everything else."
The Capitals organization has always been incredibly supportive of Ovechkin's passion for representing his country. In January, majority owner Ted Leonsis said that he would allow the 28 year old to participate in the Olympics, even if an agreement to do so had not been reached between the League, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and International Olympic Committee (IOC).
"If they don't and Alex still wants to go to the Olympics, I'm going to be honest, I'm going to let him go," Leonsis said at the time. "I just think it's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him to have something played in Russia. He's going to be a torchbearer, and it's very important to him and his family. Who am I to get in the way of him wanting to fulfill that?"
Conversely, prior to accepting the honor, Ovechkin sought out and received the blessings of the entire organization.
"Thanks to them," Ovechkin said. "Since day one, I talk to my boys and my coaching staff, I talk to [general manager] George [McPhee] and everybody says, ‘Yeah, if you have a chance to go there you have to go because it's a very important thing for you.'"
The Torch will be carried through all 83 Russian regions, visiting 2,900 towns and settlements. Ovechkin also mentioned that his mother, Tatyana, a two-time gold medalist in basketball, might also carry it at a later stage of the relay.
Either way, Ovechkin considers the opportunity to serve as a face of the Sochi Olympics to be one of his career's crowning achievements.
"This is probably the biggest event in my life," Ovechkin said. "It's huge for us. You can ask any guy who's been in the Olympics, it's an unbelievable time. My mom was Olympic champion in Moscow back in the days and she told me it was unbelievable stuff, unbelievable things going on there. Everybody was pretty excited, people were pretty happy. It's that kind of situation that you just want it to be."
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