-- Shortly after Alex Ovechkin
was joined Tuesday afternoon on a temporary stage at his team's training facility by dozens of adoring youth hockey players, he spent a few minutes with the media to talk about, of all things, his waistline.
A svelte-looking Ovechkin dismissed concerns about his conditioning that cropped up after a video of him sitting in the team's meeting room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex appeared to show him carrying a little extra weight.
"I think it's bad video camera situation," Ovechkin said. "That photo, it was kind of strange. When I get back home my friends start just killing me, saying, 'Hey, did you see that? Did you see that?' I said, 'What happened? What happened?' They said, 'You look kind of fat.' I said, 'No, I can't be fat.' It's kind of a funny situation, I think. I was laughing about it but people was a little bit scared -- especially hockey fans was kind of scared about what happened to my body.
"But my body is perfect right now. You can ask [strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish] -- he'll tell you. It was a pretty interesting moment for me, because it's never happened to me when people said I'm in bad shape."
It actually wasn't the first time Ovechkin's physical conditioning has been questioned. He has shown up for training camp in great shape in years past, but he wasn't when the Capitals convened for the 2010-11 season.
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Ovechkin had decided after the 2009-10 campaign to switch personal trainers and took a different tact when it came to preparing for the season. He was noticeably out of breath at the end of the first practice last season -- something that was out of character for a guy who typically logs heavy minutes and amazes other players and coaches with his ability to recover and compete at a high intensity level.
"Alex is our captain and he's here early. He looks to be really in great shape," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "He tried something different last year. He wanted to work his way into shape so that he was peaking during the playoffs. He is going to try something different this year, and we'll see if the results speak for themselves at the end of the season. He looks great and he's in great spirits. When your captain and best player and highest-paid player is confident and in shape, I think that sets the tone for the rest of the team."
Added Ovechkin: "I think right now I'm in better shape than I was last year and the year before. My conditioning is much better, so I feel pretty good."
Ovechkin had the worst statistical season of his career last year, scoring 32 goals and collecting 85 points. That's a great campaign for most players, but there is a higher standard for someone who is consistently in the conversation of "best player in the world."
His plan to ramp up his conditioning to be in peak shape during the playoffs also did not work out. Ovechkin dealt with a couple of nagging injuries during the course of the season -- just as he has for much of his NHL career -- but most importantly his Capitals were bounced from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning
in the second round.
It was the fourth consecutive year Washington has lost to a lower-seeded team in the postseason. There has been a clear message from members of the organization, from management to the coaching staff to the players, that things will be different this coming season.
That all starts with Ovechkin and the guys he is closest with on the team -- namely fellow young stars Nicklas Backstrom
, Alexander Semin
and Mike Green
"He's our captain and he has to set that tone," Leonsis said. "He is a natural leader, and now he wants to be more of a high example and being a vocal leader. The best way to set that tone is to come into camp early and be in shape and just spending a lot of time with the players and reaching out to the new guys and welcoming them to the team and the community."
Ovechkin agreed with his owner's assessment, for the most part.
"Of course, but you don't have to be so serious -- like a robot," he said. "You have to be serious on the ice, you have to be serious when you work out but you can't be serious all the time. I think when we said we have to be serious, it's things like you have to be ready for every game. It doesn't matter what position you are -- if you're first or second or eighth, you have to be ready for everything because you can see when we go to the playoffs and we play against Tampa, sometimes we felt like, 'OK, now it's gonna be easy for us to beat them.' It was not that kind of series. Everything can happen, but seriousness means serious every 60 minutes and every game."