Alex Ovechkin and Wayne Gretzky and their wives got together for dinner in Malibu, California, in March 2016.
On a night off between games, Ovechkin had a chance to pick the brain of the NHL all-time leader in goals, but the Washington Capitals forward wasn't interested in talking about breaking Gretzky's record. Ovechkin wanted The Great One's advice on something else.
"The thing that I found so fascinating about Alex is it wasn't so much about individualism, scoring goals, how to become a better player," Gretzky recalled during an NHL "#HockeyAtHome" interview with Ovechkin and host Kathryn Tappen that appeared on NBC Sports Network, Sportsnet, NHL.com and all League platforms Monday. "The whole night was questions about, 'What can I do or what do I need to do as captain to help get our team over the hump? What can I do to contribute to winning the Stanley Cup for the Washington Capitals and the city of Washington?'"
At the time, Ovechkin and the Capitals were struggling to advance past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Ovechkin, whose 706 regular-season goals are 188 behind Gretzky's record of 894, was driven to figure out what he and the Capitals were missing in the postseason.
In Gretzky, who won the Stanley Cup four times with the Edmonton Oilers (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988), Ovechkin saw an invaluable resource.
"He won everything, and he knows how to win," Ovechkin said. "Back then, I win only individual awards, but I never won the Stanley Cup. My dream was the Stanley Cup and I asked him what I can do better and what I have to do better to bring the Stanley Cup home."
The Capitals endured further disappointments in the 2016 and 2017 playoffs before breaking through to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 2018. Ovechkin, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs, believes Gretzky's advice helped.
"Obviously, there has to be lots of good reasons for us to win the Cup," said Ovechkin, who scored a League-leading 15 goals in the 2018 playoffs. "It's not only one guy who can win it. It has to be the whole team, and I think most of the guys who have been on a championship team realize that it doesn't matter right now who scored, who's on the ice. Everybody has to support each other."
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That dinner conversation four years ago was among the many topics Gretzky and Ovechkin discussed with Tappen during the wide-ranging video chat.
Other subjects included each player's favorite hockey memory (winning the Cup for the first time), Ovechkin's maturation and family life and what Gretzky texted Ovechkin when he went five straight games without scoring while chasing the 700-goal milestone ("Just relax. You're going to get to 700 real quick and before you know it you're going to be at 800.")
They also talked about the goals record, which Gretzky believes Ovechkin has "a great chance" to break despite the 2019-20 season being paused on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Ovechkin is tied with David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins for the NHL lead with 48 goals this season.
"Alex plays hard every single night and, to me, if you don't play hard every night, those are the kind of records you can't break," said Gretzky, who retired in 1999 after 20 NHL seasons with the Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers. "So I think it will be a great, wonderful day for hockey when he gets to the record."
Ovechkin, who is in his 15th NHL season, often downplays his chances of catching Gretzky, but is warming to the idea with each goal he scores.
"I'm going to try my best, but you never know," Ovechkin said.
If Ovechkin breaks the record, Gretzky requested that he give him a signed game-used stick in return for one he gave Ovechkin. Following their dinner four years ago, Gretzky promised Ovechkin a signed game-used stick for his extensive collection if Ovechkin won the Stanley Cup and sent him the stick from his 807th goal, which arrived at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in September.
"Finally, I get the stick," Ovechkin said, "and I was happy like a little kid to have a Christmas gift."