Alex Ovehkin snuck into a back room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Friday to catch a few minutes of the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
“Hearing the [Russian] national anthem, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “One day I’m going to be there, so it’s in my mind right now.”
On Saturday night, the Capitals will face the New Jersey Devils at Verizon Center. On Sunday morning, Ovechkin will join Olympic teammates John Carlson [USA], Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson [Sweden] and Marty Erat [Czech Republic] on a flight chartered by the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
About 14 hours later, they will land in Sochi, Russia and the Alex Ovechkin Experience will begin.
This will be Ovechkin’s third Olympic experience, but his trips to Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010 will pale in comparison to the scrutiny the 28-year-old native of Moscow will endure when he steps off that plane in Sochi.
“It’s always different,” Ovechkin said, “when you’re at home.”
To be blunt, the expectations on Ovechkin border on ridiculous. Anything short of leading the men’s hockey tournament in scoring and winning a gold medal for Russia is unacceptable.
Sidney Crosby already has his Stanley Cup ring and Olympic gold medal-clinching goal. Ovechkin has neither.
Which is why Capitals coach Adam Oates sat down with Ovechkin this week and tried to lend a few words of advice to his captain.
“What I said to him was, ‘You can’t control your coach. You can’t control your linemates, your teammates, how much you’re going to play, the luck of the draw, the bad bounce, the good bounce. It’s a one-week window. All you can control is how you play,’” Oates said.
“I said to him, ‘You’ve got to go over there and be the fastest, hard-working guy you can possibly be, because that’s what they’ll remember if something bad happens. If something good happens, great. It’s a Cinderella story. It’s a fairy tale, right? And that’s what we all hope for him.
“But you can’t guarantee that. I just want him to come out [of the Olympics] feeling that he left it on the table. He did the best he could possibly do and hopefully, that’s what people will say about him. I think no matter what happens, if he does that, he will come back with a positive experience.”
Sage words from a 51-year-old coach who two years ago was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player. But Oates also has some perspective on the matter.
Last summer he visited Ovechkin in Moscow. One day into his visit, Ovechkin received a phone call from the head of the Russian Olympic Committee and was asked to fly to Sochi for an Olympic promotional appearance.
“We all know how much money [reportedly close to $50 billion] the president has put into these Olympics and what it’s supposed to do for the country,” Oates said. “And there’s pressure because hockey is one of the big sports over there.
“[Ovechkin] carried the torch [in Greece] for a reason, that’s a huge thing. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on him and he’s done a great job.”
Ovechkin leads the NHL with 40 goals, putting him on pace for 58, which would represent the second-highest total of his nine-year NHL career. The fact he has been so productive while juggling the demands that have filled his days is, in the words of Oates, “fantastic.”
“I know he’s had phone calls from over there [in Russia],” Oates said. “I know he’s had to do stuff for the country. I know the Olympic committee chairman has called him. We all know how much pressure is on him and I think he’s done a fantastic job.”
Ovechkin admitted on Friday that his mind is beginning to shift to the Olympics, where the Capitals’ pursuit of a playoff spot will be replaced by Russia’s pursuit of a gold medal.
Actually, any medal would be an accomplishment for the home country. In Ovechkin’s first Olympic appearance as a 20-year-old, Russia placed fourth in Turin, Italy, losing the bronze medal game on a goal by – the Czech Republic’s Marty Erat.
Four years later, the Russians finished a disappointing sixth in Vancouver.
“That’s why you want him to do well,” Oates said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure and you can only control so many of the variables. It’s not like it’s an individual sport. It’s different. I just want him to go over there and be flying so that people say, no matter what happens, Ovi showed up. He did his part. That’s all you can control.”