WASHINGTON -- Alex Ovechkin's appearance Friday was supposed to be a surprise, but some of players from the American Special Hockey Association had suspected that the Washington Capitals forward was going to show up.
Ovechkin has developed a relationship with the ASHA and many of its players by hosting a hockey event for the organization the past four seasons, so they're used to seeing him around. On Friday, they played street hockey outside Capital One Arena before the Capitals' preseason game against the St. Louis Blues (7 p.m. ET.; NHLN, CSN-DC).
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"They know me. I know them," Ovechkin said. "It's been four years. I enjoy doing that kind of stuff."
Founded in 2000 for players with developmental disabilities, the ASHA has grown into a nationwide program with more than 2,000 players on 60 teams. More than 50 youth players from the Washington Ice Dogs, Baltimore Saints, Montgomery Cheetahs and Nova Cool Cats were here Friday to see the NHL Centennial Fan Arena, an interactive, traveling fan experience visiting the NHL's 31 markets this year as part of the League's Centennial celebration.
After touring the museum truck and taking photos with the Stanley Cup, the players split into groups to play on two street hockey rinks. While they were playing, a smiling Ovechkin emerged from Capital One Arena, grabbed a street hockey stick and joined the fun.
"Alex is certainly a champion to all of these kids, but it goes back and forth," ASHA executive director Jennifer O'Brien said. "Everybody knows the relationship between Alex and some of the players. They really feed off of each other."
O'Brien said some of the players seemed to know Ovechkin was coming.
"It's hard to keep it a secret," she said.
Among the players who expected to see Ovechkin was Ann Schaab of the Ice Dogs. Schaab, 13, met Ovechkin in 2014 when he and the Capitals hosted a skating session for ASHA players at their practice facility in Arlington, Virginia. Schaab, who has Down syndrome, asked Ovechkin to go on a sushi date with her following a Capitals preseason game, and a friendship was born.
"It's so exciting," Schaab said of seeing Ovechkin again. "I told him 'Good luck, have fun tonight, be awesome and tell Coach [Barry Trotz] I said hey.'"
Ovechkin took turns tending goal, playing defense, shooting and setting up the players for goals. When they'd score, he'd raise his arms to celebrate or point at the goal-scorer and give him or a her a thumbs-up.
"The first year the kids all mobbed him because they were [excited]," said Schaab's mother, Melissa. "Now they know he's going to come play and they know just to sort of relax and he will play with everyone, and I love that they don't mob him. They let him do his thing and they're there to play hockey with him.
"I like that it's gone from being that one-time thing three years ago to like, 'Oh, this is what we do every fall at the start of the season. We play hockey with Ovi.'"
At one point, Ovechkin tried setting Ann Schaab up for a goal, but she couldn't handle the bouncing ball.
"I didn't see that coming," Ann Schaab said. "I got three shots on goal."
Although Ovechkin took a few shots to his shins, he didn't seem to mind.
"When you have an opportunity to help the kids, I love to do that," Ovechkin said. "They're smiling, they had some fun, and me as well."
After the street hockey game, Ovechkin and the players gathered for photos. One was with Ovechkin's portrait painted by Canadian artist Tony Harris, as part of series honoring each of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, which were announced in January. They also took a photo with a $5,000 check from the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone program to the ASHA.
O'Brien called the donation "absolutely phenomenal."
"This money goes directly to the programs," she said. "It doesn't pass through anybody else other than it completely impacts every kid on the ice. It makes it utterly possible for them to get out there. Everybody knows hockey in an expensive sport. This makes it possible."