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Destination, D.C.

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Aside from the hardware he hauled away from the dais in Pittsburgh on Wednesday afternoon, Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin made some news locally here in the District with one of his comments during a media conference call arranged by the Capitals and the NHL. The topic: 38-year-old center Sergei Fedorov, the legendary center Washington acquired from Columbus at the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Fedorov is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

"I talked to him, and I know for sure he wants to stay in Washington," Ovechkin said. "He wants to play -- not just with me -- but with [the] Capitals."

It wasn’t long ago that players of Fedorov’s caliber – and most NHL players in general, for that matter – weren’t keen on the idea of playing in Washington. The Capitals have been in a rebuilding mode for much of this decade, and Washington has never been viewed as a prime landing spot for free agents or other players with control of their destinies. High-profile players have shunned Washington in the past, taking less money than the Capitals offered to go elsewhere.

Like many other aspects of the Washington hockey landscape, the notion of the District as an unpopular landing spot for NHL players is changing. 

When Fedorov arrived in town on Feb. 27, he was unsure of what his future held. When asked if he hoped to play beyond this season, he was noncommittal.

“I don’t know about that," he said. "I’ll be honest with you guys right now. I’m going to consider all my options after the season ends, in the summer time.”

Including retirement?

“Including that, yes.”

Two months later, after the Caps had been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, one could sense that Fedorov’s passion for the game had been rekindled by his time in Washington.

“I think it refreshed my senses for how the game is played,” said Fedorov at the time. “It really refreshed everything, honestly. I’ve got a lot to think about. Honestly, it was a great ride the way things happened and in the potential of this locker room.”

Since that day, Fedorov, Ovechkin and Alexander Semin played together on the gold medal-winning Russian team at the 2008 IIHF World Championship. Ovechkin and Fedorov are in frequent contact with each other, and Fedorov has made it known that he would be interested in resuming his NHL career in Washington with the Capitals.

The Capitals are deep at the center position with Nicklas Backstrom, Michael Nylander, Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon and David Steckel. And Washington does not have as much room beneath the league’s salary cap as it has had in recent seasons. Still, there is interest on both sides and there is at least a possibility of Fedorov sporting a Capitals sweater when the 2008-09 season gets underway. The fact that Fedorov wants to play in the District is just one indicator of how far Washington has come as an attractive NHL destination for players.

Last summer, free agents Michael Nylander, Tom Poti and Viktor Kozlov all signed multi-year deals with Washington. Nylander signed with Washington in part because of a good experience with the area and the organization during a previous tour of duty with the Capitals. Poti and Kozlov came to the District at least in part because of good word-of-mouth testimony from friends who were already members of the organization.

On the same day the Caps obtained Fedorov, they also obtained veteran goaltender Cristobal Huet from Montreal and winger Matt Cooke from Vancouver. Those three players all had prior perceptions of Washington as a place they’d visit when the schedule dictated, and on that day in late February the District suddenly became “home” for several weeks.

The combination of a team on the rise in popularity and in the standings, a brand new state-of-the-art practice facility and a great city and surrounding area are starting to make Washington an appealing place to play.

“It was always hard to play against the Capitals, especially in Washington,” said Huet before he headed off to the World Championship to represent his native France. “We knew every time we played them we would have to contain Ovie and the skilled players on the team. That hasn’t changed much. Being on the other side now, I feel like it’s very fun to play here. It’s a skating team and a forechecking team, and when we’re on our game it’s very fun for everyone to play here.

“I’ve had a chance to see a little more on the inside now, and I’m very pleased with everything. I think you have to look at everything [as an unrestricted free agent], and there are definitely some great things about Washington.”

Huet previously played in Los Angeles and Montreal, two of the better destinations in the league. Cooke had spent the entirety of his NHL career with Vancouver until the trade that brought him to the Caps. He was frank in his assessment of Washington as a visiting player.

“It’s no secret that Washington went through some hard times and hadn’t been in the playoffs for a while,” Cooke declared. “It’s a situation where people don’t come out and watch you and people don’t support the team as much as they do when you’re winning.

“I guess it’s kind of a skewed opinion, but being here and seeing the atmosphere in the rink, it has been unbelievable. It’s been as good as any place that I’ve been during a stretch push, and that includes Vancouver. The fans have been great here.”

Fedorov spent the bulk and the prime of his NHL career in Detroit, where he played on three Stanley Cup champions. He also played in Anaheim and Columbus.

“Before I probably wouldn’t say much, because I didn’t know,” said Fedorov, when asked about his perception of Washington at season’s end. “But the last two months, I found out it’s just an incredible organization from top to bottom: trainers, management, GM, coaches. Just unbelievable, really. Everybody is so hockey-minded and I love that. It makes your job easy.”

Fedorov has been around long enough to know that wanting to play in Washington does not make it so. The economics and roster logistics have to make sense for both parties, but the desire of both parties to want to make it work is a significant step.

“It’s not going to be an easy summer,” Fedorov admitted. “A lot of decisions have to be made. I’m looking forward to it. I always [embrace] challenges. I always understand what they present and always like that kind of situation. It’s nice to be in a situation like that, even though it’s already been 18 years [in the NHL] whether I like it or not.”

Time will tell if any of the three players obtained on deadline day last season remain with the Caps for 2008-09. What we do know is that Washington is growing more appealing to players around the league, and Cooke summed it up best.

“I think it’s attractive for UFAs,” said Cooke. “You’ve got a good, young group of guys and you’ve got guys who are locked in for a while. This team has the potential to have success for a long time. More than anything, that’s what determines the attractiveness of a place to play. We’re all in it to win. Everything else aside, getting your name on that Cup is huge and you want to make sure that you’re going to a place that gives you a chance to do that. Washington is definitely a place where players are going to want to play.”

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