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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Alex Ovechkin: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Big, strong, fast Capitals wing is 1,000-point scorer, three-time Hart Trophy winner

by Wayne Coffey / Special to NHL.com

Behind the Phoenix Coyotes' bench, the man widely regarded as the greatest player in history fixed his gaze overhead to the giant video screen, as mesmerized as everyone else in the arena.

It was midway through the third period of a game between the host Coyotes and the Washington Capitals, the date Jan. 16, 2006. A rookie sensation for Washington by way of Moscow, 20-year-old Alex Ovechkin, had picked up his first NHL hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks in his previous game, and had already scored once against the Coyotes on this day. 

 

Video: Alex Ovechkin is three-time Hart Trophy winner

 

Now he was breaking down the right wing, veering into the middle, hounded by defenseman Paul Mara as he barreled in on Coyotes goaltender Brian Boucher. 

Boucher came out of the net to stop him. Ovechkin pulled the puck in close and got tangled up with Mara before losing his footing and sprawling to the ice, skidding to the left of the goal. Ovechkin was flat on his back, the opportunity seemingly lost.

Somehow, though, the puck was still on his stick, which was extended far in front of him as he slid. Still on his back, Ovechkin took a backhand swipe at the puck from an impossible angle. Boucher desperately tried to retreat. Mara stood guard nearby. Ovechkin, astonishingly, made contact with the puck and sent it slithering goalward. Boucher made a desperate lunge with his stick. 

 

ALEX OVECHKIN | View Full Stats

 

The puck snuck inside the near post. 

Ovechkin didn't even know he had scored until he saw Boucher's head drop and his teammates celebrating. The crowd buzzed in disbelief. More than a decade later, the Capitals still refer to the play as the "The Goal."

Video: Memories: Rookie Alex Ovechkin scores an iconic goal

Even Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, a highlight-producer with no equal, was duly impressed. 

"That was pretty nice," Gretzky said. "He's a phenomenal player. He's that good."

Capitals forward Brooks Laich took in the spectacle from the bench. 

"It was almost like a cloud of dust, and all of a sudden, the puck was in," Laich told The Washington Post. "You could see a body roll and a guy fall and all of a sudden, the puck slid in. You didn't really know how it went in, but you knew something amazing just happened. It was one of those things where you had to take so many looks at it to really see the beauty in it and see the athleticism in it."

Alex Ovechkin -- Ovi to Capitals fans -- was the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft and didn't waste much time showing why. Blessed with first-rate athletic genes (mother Tatyana was a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the best Soviet basketball player of her generation, and father Mikhail was a pro soccer player), he was an almost freakish combination of size, speed, strength and skill, a supercharged sniper with a zest for scoring and delivering crushing checks, sometimes on the same shift. He came into the NHL with massive expectations and exceeded them from the start -- months before anybody had ever watched a replay of his absurdly angled, flat-on-the-ice miracle against Gretzky's Coyotes.

"Within a week or so we knew that we had a real special human being here," said Glen Hanlon, Ovechkin's first coach with the Capitals. 

Indeed, in his debut season, Ovechkin had 52 goals and 54 assists, captured the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie and was voted to the First All-Star Team. He piled up 46 more goals in his second season before leading the League in goals (65) and points (112) in his third, winning the Hart Trophy as the League MVP for the first of three times. Ovechkin's statistical production might be matched only by his intensity the instant his skates hit the ice.

He loves everything about the game, and it shows.

"For me, it doesn't matter where I play," Ovechkin said. "If coach says I must play goalie, I will play goalie."

Former Capitals teammate Michael Latta said few days went by when he was not astounded by what the 6-foot-3, 239-pound Ovechkin did, and how he played.

"Aside from the fact that he's the best goal scorer hockey's seen in a long time, he hits like a truck," Latta told The Washington Post. "Not many superstars wear down other teams' top shutdown [defense] pair like a fourth-line energy guy, but he does. Teams always have their top pairing out against him, and he creates so much room for him and [Nicklas] Backstrom because no one wants to get caught with their head down while he's coming in on you. Anytime you get that combination of scoring ability and physical presence, it's scary. He'll flatten you and a lot of the time give you a minus, too."

There seems to be little question that Tatyana Ovechkina is the primary source of her son's unyielding quest for excellence. Struck by a car at age 7 as she walked home from school, Tatyana sustained injuries so severe that doctors considered amputating her right leg. She spent a year in a Moscow hospital, as orthopedists actually broke her leg three additional times in hopes of abetting the healing process. When she finally got out, Tatyana was strictly limited in what she could do physically, and had to wear heavy therapeutic boots. She resolved right then she would never be infirmed or enfeebled again. She loved basketball. She told herself she would do whatever she had to do to play it, and to become a star. She launched into a self-styled rehab regimen by placing a brick on her legs and then lifting them up, building muscle inch by inch.

"It sounds primitive," Ovechkina told The Washington Post. "But you had to understand I had no advice. I had to make things up myself. I don't remember how many bricks I worked up to. I loved basketball so much that I worked until I was beside myself. I would train until I was out of my mind.

"I was very demanding of myself as an athlete when I played," she said. "I always tried to instill in [Alex] to be as demanding as I was."

If young Alex needed any additional motivation as hockey-loving kid in Moscow, he got it from the memory of his brother, Sergei, who had introduced him to the sport. Sergei died at 25 of a blood clot after a car wreck. Ten years old at the time, Alex plunged into a grief that would never completely go away but somehow seemed a little less crushing when he was playing hockey. He still avoids talking about the tragedy publicly, but told Graham Bensinger in a 2015 interview about playing a hockey game the day after Sergei's death.

"It was hard, I was crying… I was on the bench, I was crying," he said. "But my shift coach said 'OK, go play'. And I play and I'm crying. It was hard but at 10 years old, you obviously [don't] realize what's happening."

"They were very close," said Igor Nikulin, a fellow Russian who played with Ovechkin for four years with Dynamo Moscow. "The memory of his brother is something he plays for. But he doesn't talk about it, ever."

Although he hasn't had the postseason success of Sidney Crosby, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and the contemporary he is most closely associated with, Ovechkin already has seven 50-goal seasons behind him, and figures to reach the 600-goal mark during the 2017-18 season, which would put him in the top 20 goal-scorers in NHL history. 

On Jan. 11, 2017, he scored twice against the Pittsburgh Penguins to reach and pass the 1,000-point mark, becoming the 84th NHL player to hit the milestone. He was also the fourth player from Russia or the Soviet Union to do so, after Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny and Alex Kovalev.

He is, undeniably, an all-time great. 

Video: PIT@WSH: Ovi pots beauty for 1,000th NHL point

More than 10 years beyond "The Goal," Alex Ovechkin is still the same electrifying package of size, speed, strength and skill he has always been -- one part goal machine, one part force of hockey nature.

Goran Stubb, a longtime European scout for the NHL, has evaluated thousands of players. He may have said it best.

"You cannot compare Ovechkin to anyone," Stubb said. "He is in his own class."

 

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