ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin was being pelted by snowballs. And he was smiling.
It helped that they were not real snowballs, but the real joy for the Washington Capitals captain came from being surrounded by the group of nearly 100 players from the American Special Hockey Association who were throwing them at him.
"That's what it's all about," Ovechkin said after a skating session with the ASHA players at MedStar Capitals Iceplex on Tuesday. "We try to give them a smile. We try to do the best that we can to make them happy, and we get excited as well."
This is the sixth straight season Ovechkin has hosted an event with ASHA, which provides people with developmental disabilities a chance to learn and play hockey. During that time, ASHA has grown from 50 programs in 30 cities across the United States to 96 programs in 90 cities.
Video: Alex Ovechkin skates with ASHA
The number is expected to grow to 119 programs next year, according to ASHA executive director Jen O'Brien, who credits Ovechkin's work with the organization as a big reason for its expansion.
"The growth in the last year alone has been exponential and having him champion for us and helping us, he gives us credit," O'Brien said. "He supports us. This is Alex Ovechkin and he gives us the time of day and we really appreciate that. We also don't take him for granted."
O'Brien noted how Ovechkin's work with ASHA is one of the reasons why USA Hockey selected him to receive the Wayne Gretzky International Award as part of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Celebration in Washington on Thursday, one day after the Capitals host the Boston Bruins (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).
Ovechkin will be on the road with the Capitals, so owner Ted Leonsis will accept the award on his behalf, but the 34-year-old Moscow native appreciates being recognized for helping to grow the game in the United States.
"It's a huge honor," Ovechkin said. "It's tremendous to be nominated and get a win."
According to USA Hockey's annual report, there were 8,975 registered players ages 18 and under in Washington (223), Maryland (4,767) and Virginia (3,985) in 2005-06, Ovechkin's rookie season in the NHL. That number rose to 13,435 for 2018-19, including 801 in Washington (an increase of 259 percent), 6,460 in Maryland (36 percent increase) and 6,174 in Virginia (55 percent increase).
In addition to helping promote ASHA, Ovechkin launched Ovi's Crazy 8's in 2006 to provide underserved children with tickets to Capitals games, allowing more than 5,000 individuals the chance to see a game free of charge.
"He's been involved in a lot of things and, the kind of person and player he is, it's such a great thing to see him," longtime teammate Nicklas Backstrom said. "And not just with the Capitals. He does stuff outside hockey too. He gives back every way he can."
The ASHA players look forward to getting on the ice with Ovechkin and learning from him each season. The skating session on Tuesday, which included players from the Baltimore Saints, Montgomery Cheetahs, Nova Cool Cats, Delaware Stars and Washington Ice Dogs, featured three skill stations that the players rotated through.
One provided a chance to scrimmage with Ovechkin.
"It was really great," said Alex Crotzer, a 13-year-old from Silver Spring, Maryland, who plays for the Ice Dogs.
Crotzer, who wore a red Capitals Ovechkin jersey, said his favorite part was, "scrimmaging with Ovechkin and the snowball fight. I was shooting them at him."
O'Brien said the main thing spending time with Ovechkin gives the ASHA players is courage.
"They follow everything he does, but they know they have a friend in him," O'Brien said. "I think having a sustainable, long-term relationship, they know he's there and whether he's on or off the ice, knowing that, there's a real connection there. It's not just someone giving them a moment. He gives them so much more."