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Gr8 Decade

A look back at 10 years of Alex Ovechkin being the Washington Capitals captain

by Ben Raby @benraby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

Midway through their Presidents' Trophy winning season, the 2009-10 Capitals faced a decision. A late December trade sending veteran Chris Clark to Columbus had left the Capitals without a captain.

They did, however, have options. The Capitals could have gone the rest of that season without an official captain, relying instead on a leadership group by committee. They could have tabbed a respected veteran like Mike Knuble or Tom Poti to serve as captain. Or, they could have turned to their best player - a 24-year-old Alex Ovechkin.

"There was really only one choice," Nicklas Backstrom says nearly a decade later.

Former Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau thought the same.

"In my mind, there was no debate," Boudreau recently recalled.

Video: Rinkside Update | Alex Ovechkin

At the time, Ovechkin had only four years of NHL experience, but his credentials were already well established. The Capitals were coming off back-to-back Southeast Division titles with Ovechkin having captured the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 2008. There were also three 50-goal campaigns through his first four seasons and, perhaps most importantly, a presence about him that teammates could easily follow.

"For us, Alex was the guy," Boudreau says. "We didn't see anybody else. He was emerging as something very special."

According to Boudreau, the timing to anoint Ovechkin as team captain was perfect. As the NHL was just entering the 2010s, the landscape of the league was changing. From Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh to Jonathan Toews in Chicago, the game's best young players were showing they could be trusted in expanded roles of leadership. Boudreau conveyed that message in a conversation with then-Capitals GM George McPhee.

"I called George and said, 'Listen, Sidney was just named captain in Pittsburgh, the young superstars are getting named captain, and I think this is Alex's team and I think he should be the captain.' George agreed with me. So, it was very simple."

To be sure, Boudreau ran it by several of his players. The feedback was unanimous.

"They said Alex is the only choice," Boudreau recalls. "He's our leader, he's our guy. What showed us that he was ready was when I talked to him [about the captaincy] he said he would accept the responsibility but 'only if my teammates want it.' He was already thinking about the team instead of himself, which is what captains do."

As the Capitals prepared to host the Montreal Canadiens on January 5, 2010, Ovechkin came out for the pregame warmup with the "C" stitched on his jersey. That's how many fans and media learned of the change. An official release from the team soon confirmed the development.

"It was a very special moment," says Ovechkin, who is now the NHL's fifth-longest tenured active captain. "The guys in the locker room were happy and that was the most important thing. My English was getting better at that time, but I had lots of help and support from my teammates."

Ten years into his captaincy, Ovechkin still appreciates the guidance and mentorship he received early in his career from the veterans who led at the time. He credits Olie Kolzig, Dainius Zubrus and former captains Jeff Halpern and Clark for showing him the ropes as he acclimated to life in the NHL.

Even during his captaincy, Ovechkin says, he admired and respected the manner in which veterans like Knuble and Brooks Orpik took ownership of certain situations and led by example.

"I had lots of help from lots of guys in the locker room," Ovechkin says. "At that point, when I get a 'C' on the chest, I didn't have a lot of experience doing that so the older guys helped me a lot.

"Nobody can be captain by himself. It's like 'Okay, I have a 'C', but whether you have a 'C' or an 'A' or no letter or whatever, we've always had lots of leaders."

Ten years removed from being named captain, Ovechkin has led the team under five different head coaches and recently passed Rod Langway as the longest-tenured captain in franchise history. In 2016, Ovechkin was recognized as a finalist for the NHL's Mark Messier Leadership Award.

"It's been great to watch his evolution as a leader," says head coach Todd Reirden, who has worked with Ovechkin for the past six seasons. "It's changed with everything from his off-ice conditioning, to on-ice play to the effect that he has with young players to helping people in the community and being behind some amazing causes. It's extraordinary to see what he's done as a leader. I'm proud to have him as a captain and love how he's grown."

Video: Alex Ovechkin | January 4

According to those around the dressing room, Ovechkin has never been much of a rah-rah in-your-face type of captain. He speaks up and addresses his teammates when appropriate, but he's long been more of the lead-by-example type of captain.

When the Capitals suffered a string of premature playoff exits earlier in the decade, Ovechkin took ownership and accepted responsibility. He vowed every spring that he'd work to be better.

"Sometimes that's a hard thing to do- to take the blame and put it all on your shoulders," notes T.J. Oshie. "All the years the Caps were close and couldn't get through the second round, everyone looked at O. And then every summer, people would ask 'Could he have a great career if he never wins the Cup? Could he be a great captain if he never wins the Cup?' All those years, he took the brunt of everything and everyone else got off scot free pretty much. So, for him to take that and not point fingers and then come back and lead us to a Cup shows what type of captain he is."

Perhaps the turning point in Ovechkin's captaincy, and arguably in his career, came after another second-round defeat to Pittsburgh in 2017. Despite playing through a nagging hamstring injury that spring, the usual questions were asked of Ovechkin's ability to carry the team on a deep postseason run.

Ovechkin rededicated himself that summer and adjusted his training habits by placing a greater emphasis on speed and conditioning. The following season, he carried the Capitals to the pinnacle of their sport.

In June 2018, Ovechkin became the first Russian captain to hoist the Stanley Cup. Along the way, he led the Capitals with a franchise-record 15 postseason goals. Throughout that playoff run, Ovechkin unabashedly wore his emotions. His reactions on the ice and on the bench to several goals or close calls quickly went viral throughout the spring.

"I knew the passion level was there, but I didn't know until I got here how much of that passion isn't just for him, but he's just as excited when his teammates score," Reirden says.

"That's become easy to see and I think that became very noticeable for the public when they watched him during the Stanley Cup Final. There were people who could give or take Alex Ovechkin. But then I've heard so many people's opinions change of him as a leader based upon how emotionally attached he was to the whole situation, how much he cared, how much he was not going to be deterred. It's been pretty awesome to watch that transformation."

Goaltender Braden Holtby, one of Ovechkin's longest-tenured teammates, has also noticed his transformation as captain.

"He's definitely evolved as a leader," Holtby says. "I think the year we won, that was a turning point in that area for him. He found a way to get everyone going through adversity. He committed himself to playing everywhere on the ice and playing hard every day and guys followed. That's a huge credit to him and it's something our young guys needed and it showed."

Holtby's point about Ovechkin committing himself to play everywhere is an example of his maturity and evolution as a leader. Back when Ovechkin was named captain in 2010, he was a physical specimen who could take over games thanks to his ability to score goals in bunches. While that remains the case 10 years later, Ovechkin has also become more of a well-rounded player and leader.

Earlier this season, for example, Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals to complete a hat-trick in Detroit. Some teammates gave him some good-natured ribbing about scoring twice into an empty net, but it also spoke to the coaching staff trusting Ovechkin to be on the ice to protect a slim lead late in the third period. Earlier in his career, that wouldn't have necessarily been the case when his two-way responsibilities were often questioned.

"Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone," Reirden says. "He's evolved and he continues to grow. That's something that he's become more transparent about in talking to people, explaining to them what it means to be not just Alex Ovechkin, but to be a pro in the league and the things you've got to do and some of the hard lessons that he's maybe learned. To me, that shows strength of a person and someone growing and maturing."

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