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This past weekend, more than 150 players from 11 American Special Hockey Association (ASHA) teams gathered in Arizona to play the sport that they love thanks to a donation from a longtime friend and supporter, Alex Ovechkin. These players took the ice as part of the Arizona Cactus Cup Special Hockey Festival.

In January, the Washington Capitals and Ovechkin announced several community initiatives in honor of him passing Gordie Howe for second on the NHL's all-time goals list. One of these initiatives was Ovechkin donating to ASHA - a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving those with intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities through the sport of hockey - to cover ice costs for 100 special hockey teams across the U.S., including for the Arizona Cactus Cup.

"This year with Alex's support, we were able to expand the event to include more teams from the west, which is excellent," said Jen O'Brien, ASHA Executive Director. "This is kind of the first time we've been able to do this larger event."

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O'Brien added, "Alex's support of ASHA means everything. It's not just his one-time support. It's his ongoing support."

Ovechkin's relationship with ASHA first began nearly a decade ago when he went on a sushi date with 11-year-old local hockey player Ann after meeting her at a skating session hosted by him and the Capitals for children from ASHA. Ann, who has Down syndrome, skated to Ovechkin and asked him to go on a date with her. A few days later, Ovechkin invited the family to Medstar Capitals Iceplex and surprised Ann with an invitation to go with him to a Capitals preseason game, where they had sushi - her favorite - after the game.

This was the beginning of a special bond between not only Ovechkin and Ann, but also Ovechkin and ASHA. He became an ASHA ambassador and has hosted multiple ASHA skating sessions, as well as a street hockey event.

With the Arizona Cactus Cup, Ovechkin was able to widen the reach of this impact.

"To the D.C. area, he's not taken for granted, but he's a fixture," said O'Brien. "He's part of their team, and they know that. They know Alex is out there cheering for them. These other teams have never experienced that. They see it, but now they're actually getting that kind of support. It really makes them feel included."

Feelings like this are part of what makes these types of events so special and meaningful. Regardless of any score, everyone leaves the weekend as a winner.

"Having the opportunity to get together as a group, sometimes it's not always about the goals that are in the back of the net," said O'Brien. "It's about the goals of seeing each other, being together, and playing this game together. The real goal was to bring this community together to celebrate the game we love so much."

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In addition to providing these players with priceless memories and experiences, O'Brien hopes Ovechkin's support inspires others to join the cause.

"What we're hoping this does is encourage more people to get involved and see what we're doing," she said. "Alex is such a big presence within the sport of hockey, and he's right along with us. The relationship with him is genuine. It really is like having a good friend on your team."