In late December of 2004, I boarded a plane bound for Grand Forks, N.D. The NHL was quiet at the time; in the midst of a lockout that eventually erased the 2004-05 season. The 2005 IIHF World Junior Championship was taking place in Grand Forks and in Thief River Falls, Minn., and it afforded me my first opportunity to see Ovechkin on the ice in game situations.
A couple days after the tournament concluded in January of 2005, we ran this piece I wrote on washingtoncaps.com.
One of the main attractions at the just-completed World Junior Championships tournament in Grand Forks, N.D. was Russian left wing Alexander Ovechkin. The Washington prospect, and the first player taken in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Ovechkin was one of several players to attract a lot of attention from fans, opposing players and media. He was named the tourney’s top forward after finishing with seven goals (tied for the tournament lead) and 11 points (third) in Russia’s six games.
Russian hockey players are never a particularly beloved bunch in this part of the world, but that’s even truer when they’re competing against the Canadians and the Americans in a prestigious international tournament. Even so, Ovechkin’s name is the only one that draws a smattering of boos during the pregame players introductions, when the name and uniform number of every player on the roster is read over the public address system at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
Once the puck drops and the game starts, opposing defenses are keenly aware of Ovechkin’s presence on the ice. The mediocre American defense is powerless to do much to stop him, however. He manages to carve out his share of time and space and to take control of the game at times. Occasionally a Team USA defender will lift his stick or stay close enough to hamper a scoring chance, but he is a dominant factor in the Russians’ 7-2 semifinals victory over the Americans.
Against the Canadians two nights later, it’s another story entirely. Ovechkin’s line is out on the ice for Team Russia for the game’s first 15 seconds; that’s how long it takes for Russia to ice the puck and force a whistle and subsequent line change. Within that 15-second span, Team Canada’s Corey Perry has already made a point to introduce himself to Ovechkin by virtue of a hard hit along the boards in the neutral zone. That hit sets the tone for the rest of the night.
The Canadians are a far more talented and much deeper team than the American team Ovechkin was up against in his previous tournament game. Team Canada is extremely well coached and extremely disciplined group. They haven’t permitted an even-strength goal in 12-plus periods and play as though allowing an odd-man break would result in the loss of their limbs. They have made it their mission to shut Ovechkin down, and as a result he is finding skating space very hard to come by.
The plan is well thought and is executed even better. The execution here is the key thing. I’ve seen players try to lay the body on Ovechkin only to bounce off him and take themselves out of the play. Hitting the guy is good only if the rest of your teammates are in position after the initial hit. With Team Canada, that’s almost always the case. Ovechkin doesn’t have enough room to make a difference and his linemates aren’t talented enough to take advantage of the extra time and space their getting as a result of the Canadians’ close attention to their more heralded linemate.
Canada wins to take the gold medal, 6-1. And Ovechkin is knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury midway through the second period, absorbing a hit from three Canadians simultaneously as he brings the puck across the Team Canada blueline. Ovechkin can expect this sort of opposition concentration throughout his career and it will be up to him, his coaches and his teammates to find ways of winning in spite of this attention.
It would have been easy for the injured Ovechkin to remain in the locker room and nurse his shoulder injury rather than sit on the bench with his teammates – while his team is on the short end of a 6-1 drubbing – and face a hostile crowd. But he did sit on the bench throughout the third period and did not react noticeably to the crowd’s occasional derisive chants. Losing the game must have hurt more than anything; the shoulder injury is expected to cost him only about three weeks of playing time.
After games reporters line up for a chance to chat with Ovechkin, and he patiently (if obliquely) answers all queries until the last tape recorder has been switched off. After the Russians have downed the Americans, the questions run the gamut from his tinted, futuristic visor to his thoughts on his Canadian counterpart, Sidney Crosby.
Your visor, what kind of visor is that?
“It’s special,” he grins.
It makes you look like a race car driver.
“Race car? No. I’m just a hockey player. No race cars.”
Can you compare yourself with Sidney Crosby?
“I’ve never seen him. I know he is a good player, and I will see him.”
Do you look forward to the chance to play this game, best player against best player?
“When we play Canada, we don’t play Crosby, we play Canada. It’s not one player. Hockey is a team game.”
How much better are you this year than you were in Halifax (two years ago, Team Russia downed Team Canada for the gold medal at the WJC tournament which was held in Halifax that year)?
“I feel more comfortable. I think I play a better physical game. I play for the team.”
How does this year’s team compare to last year’s team in Helsinki (the WJC was played in Helsinki last year)?
“I don’t want to remember last year. It was a terrible season for Team Russia. We finished fifth. We have a good chance to win this championship.”
My turn now. Having watched Ovechkin play just one game, one thing stood out to me. He likes hanging out in the high slot, whether his team is on the power play or at even strength. He will circle around a bit in the zone, like a shark looking for blood. But he inevitably drifts out to the high slot where he lurks in wait for a pass.
On the first Team Russia goal in the semifinal game against Team USA, he fans on a pass from that spot only to see the puck go across to the far wall where defenseman Dmitri Vorobiev awaits. Vorobiev blasts a one-timer home and the Russians lead, 1-0.
Not even three minutes later Ovechkin is in the same spot when a similar pass comes to him. He doesn’t miss this one, and in fact, it’s not on his stick long enough to realize that he even had it. Ovechkin lashes a one-time wrist shot and the puck blazes into the top corner of the net.
Later in the game I notice him again gravitating to this spot. Sometimes he shoots, sometimes he lets the puck go through his legs and to a waiting teammate behind him and sometimes he puts his stick down to deftly direct the disc to a teammate in one direction or another.
Gretzky had his office behind the net. Adam Oates loved to dish from the half-wall. It’s just one game, but Ovechkin looks like a high slot guy to me.
So, I’m interested in finding out about this.
“You seem to like to camp out in the high slot area,” I note. “Is that something you’ve always done or is it something you’ve started to do recently?”
“Uh, you know, it’s a secret,” he grins impishly, after a short pause.
I assure him his secret is safe with me; I’m one of the good guys from Washington.
“Coach knows I have a good shot,” he says, “a good one-timer shot and that’s why I stay in this position. If they get me a pass and I might just shoot.”
I’m not sure about the fascination with the visor. The way people are talking about it, you’d think the guy was Jacques Plante and he just put a mask on for the first time.
Race car driver, indeed. I’ve heard Robo-Cop comparisons too, but my own preference is the bad-assed, non-speaking “walking boss” in “Cool Hand Luke.” He was all about attitude. Though I know there’s much more to Ovechkin than merely attitude, attitude is good. Attitude is Goose Gossage’s jowly, menacing stare from the mound in the ninth inning of a one-run game. Attitude is Mike Singletary’s eyes burning through his facemask and promising punishment to any ballcarrier. Neither of those guys needed the attitude, either, but it was a potent and memorable component of the total package.
It’s not all attitude with Ovechkin. There’s diligence (he’s the last guy off the ice after warm-ups and he always finishes his checks), leadership (he takes charge during warm-ups and can sometimes be seen directing traffic during the game) and a certain joie de vivre
that manifests itself in his answers to the assembled media’s questions and his Bondraesque glee at having scored a goal.
Ovechkin is Team Russia’s captain and he can be a bit of a lawyer in that role, arguing and pleading his case after many whistles and stoppages. I’ve always believed a captain should be judicious in this regard, but this is a high-stakes tournament, and Ovechkin is a teenager, as difficult as that is to grasp at times. He’ll learn.
Anyway, what do I know? I’ve only seen him play two games now. So I ask someone who would know a little better, Team USA goaltender Al Montoya.
Both Ovechkin and highly regarded teammate Evgeni Malkin beat Montoya with laser shots in the semifinals, and I’m wondering how the respective shots of the two players compare.
Is there much of a similarity between Ovechkin and Malkin’s shots?
“No, not at all,” asserts Montoya. “Not Ovechkin’s shot compared to Malkin’s. Ovechkin gets the puck away without you even knowing it. That’s why he is such a great player. Malkin is more of a shifty player. You had to keep your eye on him when he was coming down the ice because you never knew what he was going to do, pass it or shoot it.”
Hopefully, the denizens of MCI Center will see Ovechkin for themselves before too long.