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Despite hardships, Russia, fans embrace Ovechkin

by Risto Pakarinen /

The popularity of Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin has grown to epic proportions in his native Russia. Watch Ovechkin in action
The Russians aren't used to hearing good news coming out of Washington, D.C..

Back in the days of the Iron Curtain, the United States and Russia were the world's two polar opposites, each skeptical about the intentions of the other.

But that's ancient history. After all, back then there were only a handful of European players in the NHL, and no Russians at all.

Today, the League is flooded with European-born players and Russians are among the biggest stars in the NHL. That shift is reflected in today's Moscow.

Now, Muscovites are up in the middle of the night – Moscow is eight hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone -- to watch one charismatic Russian young hockey player named Alexander Ovechkin create havoc in Washington.

It doesn't hurt that Ovechkin has help from Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Semin and Viktor Kozlov – three other Russians – in making the Caps the Cinderella story of the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But, the charismatic Ovechkin is the great unifier that people in both Washington and Moscow love to love, even it means pulling an all-nighter in Moscow and going straight from watching the game to going to work

Alexey Shelestenko, a market research analyst at Google and based in Russia, is one of those fans whom Ovechkin has charmed. Originally a Ducks fan, Shelestenko is now keeping an eye on Ovechkin, the pride of Russian hockey.

Shelestenko and his fellow Russian hockey fans have one obvious problem trying to follow Ovie's success in the NHL: The games are played in the middle of the night in Moscow. A 7 p.m. game in Washington is a 3 a.m. game there.

Ovechkin-watching becomes even more of a challenge if you don't have cable TV.

"I've been an NHL fan since 1994 and I try to follow it every possible way. I read, TSN and ESPN, I even followed the Ducks run to the Cup in 2003, but back then, it was impossible to watch the games at home, and the only place to see them was a fancy sports casino," Shelestenko says.

This year, the Ducks fan, like so many others, turned into an AO follower.

"About three weeks before the end of the regular season, I was just following the Caps, hoping they'd make it to the playoffs. When I couldn't see the game, I went to and followed the game reports."

Ovechkin has forced Shelestenko to return to the sports casino a few times to get his fix.

"The hot Russian NHL team used to be the Detroit Red Wings, with (Igor) Larionov, (Sergei) Fedorov, (Slava) Fetisov and the rest, and they still have the biggest fan base here," Shelestenko says. "Now, everybody's watching Ovechkin.

"Russian players have been known to be the ones whose performance dips once the fat contract gets signed. Not Ovechkin. Russians as a people are also afraid of making a fool of themselves, and to act genuinely happy for your own success is almost looked down upon. Not Ovechkin."

The stereotype of the Russian player is that of the old Soviet style where the players would celebrate a goal or other success by patting each other on the helmets or the shin pads maybe twice, then skating to the bench without a smile. Ovechkin, through his exuberance, shows people that it doesn't have to be that way.

"Ilya Kovalchuk is the epitome of that (stoicism)," Shelestenko said. "He scores and is just cool about it. The passion that Ovechkin brings to the game gets everybody energized. He knows he's the best, but he's not afraid of falling. I think that's his charm."

Shelestenko's friend, Dmitry Possunko, became a Caps fan thanks to Ovechkin.

"He's young, and exciting to watch, not just because he scores a lot of goals, but because with him, anything can happen at any second. He can deliver a big check, dish out a nice pass, or score a goal," Possunko says.

Possunko first took notice of the young, flashy Ovechkin during the World Junior Championships. Then, he saw Ovechkin at the World Championships, saw the NHL Entry Draft online, and then stayed with Ovechkin all the way to the NHL.

This fall, Possunko was in Canada for six months and got to see a lot of Ovechkin highlight-reel material, but back home, it hasn't been as easy.

"I came back in January, and didn't have cable, so I missed some of the action, but followed him online," Possunko says.

But, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And when the games get big, the Russian NHL fans go to sports bars that stay open well into the wee hours.

"If there was a big game against Carolina or something, I did go to a sports bar to see the game and then maybe go to work a little late," Possunko said. "If you can't go in late, and it's a really big game, you can watch it and go straight to work. "I've done that a few times."

As an adviser to the general manager of a large Russian company, Possunko's advice to his boss comes out a little slower on days following a big NHL game and the ensuing sleepless night.

The third alternative is to have friends over to watch the games together. That's something Possunko hasn't done – yet.

"People do that, though, they gather to somebody's apartment to watch the games," he says.

Ovechkin fever is raging in Russia, but he's not the only hometown boy getting Russians excited about the NHL.

After all, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin finished second in the scoring race, and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk was runner-up for the Maurice Richard Trophy, behind Ovechkin. Veteran Alex Kovalev, meanwhile, is the offensive leader on a strong Montreal team.

"We're proud of these guys," says Possunko, already getting ready for the next Capitals game.

"I hope the Caps will win. The Flyers did a good job with Ovechkin last time (in Game 2), but that's the thing with Ovechkin. You can shut him down for 50 minutes, then he gets one chance and he scores," Possunko says.

Good night, Washington. Good morning, Moscow.

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