Roughly 80 children, adolescents and adults, clad in full hockey gear, lined up against the glass at MedStar Capitals Iceplex Tuesday, anxiously awaiting their chance to skate upon the same ice where the Washington Capitals had just practiced. One of those players would make his encore into the rink to join the familiar crowd.
Video: Ovechkin's American Special Hockey Association Skate
Though Alex Ovechkin's presence wasn't a surprise - this is the fifth time he's hosted the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA) at the Caps' practice facility - his visit hasn't lost any of its thrill from years past. In fact, maybe the opposite.
"Obviously this year was a little special because they're Stanley Cup Champions now," said Melissa Schaab, whose daughter, Ann, has played in the league for five years and never missed an Ovechkin day. Ann also famously invited Ovechkin on a sushi date at the first skate in 2014.
"We thought [four years ago] that [the event] would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Schaab said. "But Ovi has been gracious enough to constantly think of our players and reach out to us and offer opportunities like this, year after year after year. It's pretty incredible."
Ovechkin greeted the participants with high fives as they flooded onto the ice, then joined the five different D.C. area teams from the ASHA in drills for an hour. He cheered goals and even notched a few points.
"I had two assists," Ovechkin said. "I needed them - good day at the office." He closed the afternoon skate with autographs and a team photo.
Ovechkin, whose community involvement also includes founding and working with programs like Ovi's Crazy 8's and Most Valuable Kids, said he understands the participants' excitement from his own experience as a young hockey player. This is his chance to give back.
"I was a little kid as well," Ovechkin said. "When I would meet [pro players] I was the happiest kid in the world. Now I have a chance to help someone smile. When you see their reaction, that's the most exciting thing."
"He actually makes them feel like they're apart of the team," said Jen O'Brien, the ASHA executive director. "I might be a little biased, but this might be the greatest group of fans that he has - they cheer him on every win, every loss, every moment."
Created in 2000 for players with developmental and intellectual disabilities, ASHA provides people of all ages and abilities a chance to learn and grow through hockey. When Ovechkin hosted the first skate in 2014, there were 50 programs across 30 cities. ASHA has since grown to 78 ASHA programs in more than 65 cities throughout the United States, with five teams in the D.C. area. O'Brien said the organization will continue to add more teams. Ovechkin, she said, has helped their mission.
"Having a champion - and not just with the Stanley Cup - Alex has championed for these kids for a number of years and it's been transformative for the organization and for these kids," O'Brien said. "We have kids who are non-verbal, we have kids in wheelchairs, we have kids who are autistic, we have kids with Down syndrome - they all feel like they're apart of the Capitals. And of course, when you have the captain out there cheering them on, there's nothing like it."