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In town known for politics and pigskin, Ovechkin and the Caps cause hockey fever

Thursday, 10.29.2009 / 5:08 PM / News

The Canadian Press

ARLINGTON, Va. - It's 11 a.m. in suburban Virginia on a rainy mid-week morning, yet the arena perched atop a sprawling shopping mall soon fills up with hockey fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the NHL superstar known as Ovie.

Dozens of them, some wearing Washington Capitals jerseys, have slipped out of work or bundled up their pre-school kids to watch the team practise after a promising start to the season that has hockey fans dreaming of another run at the Stanley Cup, 11 years after the Caps made it to the final in 1998.

"It's the most exciting game in town and we've got Alex Ovechkin, and we all know he's the best player in the world, and maybe one of the best players to ever play the game," Paul Parfomak, an energy policy specialist at the Library of Congress, said recently as he took in the practice with his two young sons.

Parfomak doesn't mind that Ovechkin, who signed the most lucrative contract in NHL history without the help of an agent, is sitting this one out. The 24-year-old Russian is instead holding court in the locker-room at a curious locale for a hockey arena - the Kettler Ice Complex on the seventh floor of a shopping mall about a 15-minute drive west of downtown Washington.

Dressed in workout pants and flip-flops, there's no sign of the jubilant personality that's prompted Don Cherry to sneeringly call him a "goof." Instead, Ovechkin is soft-spoken and modest when asked about his role in reigniting hockey fever in a town better known for games involving politics and pigskin.

"It's not me, it's the whole organization," Ovechkin said. "I have some kind of trust to be who I am right now. The coaches in our organization and the players trust me, so I just try to do what I can do. And I love it, what I'm doing."

But there's no denying Ovechkin's status as the league's top goal-scorer, not to mention his entertaining on-ice antics, have helped sell out every home game this season. Ovechkin jerseys are a common sight in the D.C. area, not just in the city proper but in the sprawling Maryland and Virginia suburbs that encircle the town.

Even President Barack Obama is a fan.

"As a resident of Washington, D.C., I continue to benefit from the contributions of Russians - specifically, from Alexander Ovechkin," Obama said during a trip to Russia in July. "We are very pleased to have him in D.C."

Going into Thursday's game against Atlanta, the hard-hitting Ovechkin led the league with 11 goals and was second in points with 19 in 11 games for the 7-2-2 Caps.

Ovechkin's teammates credit him with resurrecting the city's love affair with NHL hockey.

"When you have an Alex Ovechkin in your organization, they all want to come see him play," Brooks Laich, a 26-year-old forward from Wawota, Sask., said after practice. "And the response around town has been great. Everywhere you walk, you see jerseys, you see shirts, you see people wearing red ... Washington is a hockey town."

Nate Ewall, director of media relations for the Caps, agrees.

"The most amazing thing to me has been not just the sellouts, but how much more you see Caps hats and T-shirts around town, or hear people talking about the Caps," he said. "I'll wear a Caps shirt on the weekend and have people talk to me about the game the night before - that never used to happen."

Three years ago, in fact, the Capitals were in last place and the downtown Verizon Center was as lively as a cemetery. But two season ago, the Capitals won the Southeast Division title for the first time since 2000-01, edging out the Carolina Hurricanes in the final game of the season.

In a remarkable end-of-season run, the Caps won 11 of their final 12 regular season games, becoming the first team in NHL history to make the playoffs after being ranked 14th or lower in their conference standings at the season's mid-point.

This year, their home games are brimming with raucous fans who eat up Ovechkin's on-ice exuberance.

The big Russian has been accused of celebrating every goal like he's just scored the game-winner in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, something that irked Cherry last season.

"We don't want to start acting like those goofy soccer guys," Cherry said about Ovechkin while predicting ominously: "Some big defenceman is gonna cut him in half as he cuts down centre ice. You don't act like this goof."

Ovechkin doesn't seem concerned, however, and some of his off-ice antics have been just as entertaining as his over-the-top goal celebrations.

He once appeared on a Russian game show dressed in an outfit that would have done Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat proud as he competed in games that were, in fact, genuinely goofy. He beamed from ear to ear last month as he drove a Zamboni down a Manhattan street for a promotional event. He once laughingly mocked the fighting style of teammate Alexander Semin. And he cheerfully checked out two comely blonds in the crowd earlier this year during the NHL all-star game in Montreal.

"Everybody have fun and no speed limit!" Ovechkin, who has a fondness for sports cars, declared last year when he was given the key to Washington, D.C., after being named the NHL's MVP.

All in all, it's decidedly silly, un-D.C. behaviour, and he couldn't be adored more for it.

"People are attracted to great athletes, and not just for their personalities on the ice, but for their personalities off the ice, and Ovie is a great ambassador for Russia and for hockey," Parfomak said.

"He's phenomenal to watch, but also a really nice guy - we see him all the time around here, and he's always friendly and approachable."

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