SPRINGFIELD, Va. -- Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin stood in front of a half-finished sports complex on Wednesday that his presence in the city for the past 12 years helped create.
Hockey in the Washington, D.C., area is booming with high schools adding the sport at a rapid rate and youth leagues filled to capacity. But rink space remains limited, ice time difficult to find.
That's why Ovechkin hopes complexes like The St. James Sports and Wellness Center, which spans more than 450,000 square feet on 20 acres of a former industrial site, will provide more local kids a chance to play hockey on a pair of NHL-sized rinks - or any of the eight other sports the facility will host.
"This reminds me when I was practicing in Russia and how we trained," Ovechkin said on Wednesday. "One facility had everything -- ice rink, soccer field. If you want to be a good athlete, you have to have everything close to you. I hope, and I'm pretty sure, it's going to help raise very good athletes here.
"I wish I had these kinds of facilities when I was a little kid to spend time with my family and my brothers … I can't wait until it opens."
The St. James Center isn't expected to open until September 2018, and is a construction site with steel beams, hard hats and bulldozers everywhere. It will add rinks that are sorely needed in the Northern Virginia suburbs; the Capitals practice facility at Kettler Iceplex in Arlington was built atop a parking garage and is in constant use for youth and adult hockey practices and tournaments when the Capitals are not skating there.
There are rinks to the west (Ashburn, Virginia) of Washington and and north and east in Maryland (Rockville, Wheaton, Laurel). There's even one in the District itself (Fort Dupont Ice Arena) that has exposed local and inner-city children to hockey in Washington since 1978; the Capitals, as part of the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone initiative, routinely donate time and money to the development program there.
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But the majority of hockey's growth in the region has taken place since Ovechkin, 31, was selected by Washington with the first pick in the 2004 NHL Draft. In 2009, then-general manager George McPhee had Ovechkin and his teammates practice at the outdoor rink of the exclusive Chevy Chase Club. Hundreds of fans showed up to watch a glorified practice on a weeknight, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts. That's the impact Ovechkin has had on the sport in Washington, though the Capitals have yet to win a Stanley Cup.
Ovechkin peppered The St. James developers about their plans: How many hockey coaches are they going to employ and where are they going to find them? The point is to give more children the opportunity to play, but instruction matters, too. The facility, to Ovechkin, dovetails with the NHL's Declaration of Principles, where hockey becomes an enjoyable family experience upheld by all who participate: organizations, players, parents, siblings, coaches, referees, volunteers and rink operators.
"It's going to be huge for the city, huge for D.C., huge for families to spend time here, to be an athlete and [play] some sports," Ovechkin said. "I wish I had these kinds of facilities when I was a little kid to spend time with my family and my brothers … I can't wait until it opens.
"It's huge for kids who want to be involved in [hockey], who want to be an athlete. To take the first step, it's very important. I'm pretty sure there's going to be lots of professionals [working] here and that's going to help the kids grow."