ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin emerged from the Washington Capitals locker room Tuesday while the ice at the MedStar Capitals Iceplex was still being resurfaced. But children from the American Special Hockey Association waiting on the opposite side of the rink immediately spotted the Capitals forward and quickly began chanting "Ovi! Ovi!"
For this skating session with Ovechkin, an event they look forward to every season, more than 80 ASHA players from the Baltimore Saints, Montgomery Cheetahs, Nova Cool Cats and Washington Ice Dogs were eagerly awaiting their chance to take the ice and play hockey with their hero.
When the ice had been resurfaced, a smiling Ovechkin skated over to welcome the players with a fist bump as each one stepped onto the ice.
"We did it the last five years, and when we started it was less people than right now," Ovechkin said. "More people come. More people enjoy it. Plus, we love to do that kind of stuff. It's something you should do."
The ASHA was founded in 2005 for players with developmental disabilities and has grown into a nationwide program with more than 3,500 players in 78 organizations. For his contributions, which include donating a car following the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Columbus, Ovechkin received the 2016 ASHA Inspiration Award.
"I always like to spend time with the kids, especially with kids who need help," Washington's captain said. "For them and for the parents, to see their smile is always nice."
Ovechkin and the Capitals hosted their first skating session with ASHA in 2014. That was when he met Ann Schaub, an Ice Dogs player from Laurel, Maryland, with Down syndrome who invited him on a sushi date with her following a Capitals preseason game.
Ovechkin greeted Schaub, now 14, on Tuesday by saying, "Hey Ann, my buddy," and they posed for a photo together before participating in a friendly scrimmage. Schaub was among those who were thrilled for Ovechkin and the Capitals last season when they won the Stanley Cup for the first time.
She was also happy to hear that Ovechkin and his wife, Nastya, welcomed their first child, a son they named Sergei, on Aug. 18.
"I was really happy for him and he told me he was married with a baby, so I asked him if he wanted to come over with the wife," Schaub said.
Schaub wasn't the only player who wanted to have her photo taken with Ovechkin. He obliged many of them individually and in small groups before taking a group photo at the end of the event. After that, he was mobbed by players seeking an autograph or simply a hug.
"Alex is champion for Special Hockey for years now, so these kids really look up to him no matter if there's a Stanley Cup or not," ASHA executive director Jen O'Brien said. "Now, having a Stanley Cup involved here, they really champion for each other, so it's very symbolic. It's really exciting. They look forward to this every year. … They're so excited to be here. But it means something more because it means they feel like they're a part of the Capitals organization. They feel a part of the team. They feel included.
"When people think these kids can't skate, he always believes in them and I think that belief in them it's retroactive."
O'Brien said hockey has a special way of helping the children bond on the ice.
"Maybe it's because it's on the ice, maybe it's because you have to do the balance, maybe it's a sensory thing, but it really does connect kids," she said. "More often than not, kids that you never thought could do it always do."
Sai Ryan, a 10-year-old Ice Dogs player from Silver Spring, Maryland, who has low gross motor skills, enjoyed simply being on the ice with Ovechkin and playing against him in the scrimmage.
"It was kind of weird because I was playing defense and it's so awkward trying to take the puck from him," Ryan said. "It's like, 'Should I do this?' And then he's already gone and I'm like, 'Yeah, I should have.'"