‘You never know what’s going to happen with me’

As Alex Ovechkin’s Olympic moment arrives, is his NHL career nearly over? 

It doesn’t matter how hard he tries. He can twist, turn, push or pull, employ all the tricks his exceptional athleticism allows him. He can thrust out his shoulder like he’s crushing an unfortunate foe against the glass, or he can thrust his hands above his head as if he’s scored a gold-medal-winning goal. He can flail. Contort. Whatever. It’s useless. It doesn’t matter what Alex Ovechkin does. The sweater doesn’t fit.

He’s stuck somewhere in the middle of it. A shoulder pad sticks out where his head should be, and his arms are pinned inside the sleeves. He is locked in a red Team Russia straightjacket with blue trim and the gold coat of arms across the chest until Sergey Kocharov, the Washington Capitals’ communications manager, untangles the threads that bind him. That’s better. His arms are now where one’s arms ought to be. A flat, grey-flecked dome and elfish ears pop through the top of his Olympic sweater.

“Why’s it so bad?” Ovechkin asks, with a wide white grin spaced by missing front teeth.

“It’s the fit,” Kocharov says. “They’re tight.”

Ovie shrugs. The sweater reached him in Columbus on a snowy Thursday in January. Nike, makers of Russia’s Olympic sweaters, sent it special delivery. More brand new Team Russia gear is scattered around an open DHL box in front of Ovechkin’s stall in the visitors’ locker room at Nationwide Arena. Bauer, his personal sponsor, sent that. It’s an off day for the Washington Capitals, a team that’s dropped three games in four nights and is tumbling down the Metropolitan division standings. Practice is cancelled to give the boys some rest, but there are half a dozen Caps in the locker room getting massages, walking around shirtless and taking turns shooting an orange hockey ball into a black container and chirping each other. In other words, doing the things pro hockey players do on an off day in Columbus in January.

But it’s not an off day for “Alexander the Great.” The Caps’ captain is in full gear, and battles with the much-too-small Olympic sweater for a photo shoot. It’s another call of duty for the NHL’s top sniper as the days count down to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Russia’s Olympics. His Olympics.

No athlete carries more expectation to these Games than Ovechkin. He is the face of Russian hockey and one of the biggest celebrities in his home country. He is arguably the best scorer in the game and has been named the NHL’s MVP three times. He has risen to the top and fallen and fought his way back. Now he has another chance to realize a lifelong dream: to win a gold medal for Russia. At 28 years old and at the peak of his uncanny abilities, yet beset by injuries that kept him day-to-day in the weeks leading up to the Games, this is the only chance he’ll ever have to do it at home. If there’s a test that will define his legend, Sochi is it. This is his hero moment, his chance to feel what Sidney Crosby did when he slipped that puck past Ryan Miller and leapt into Canadian lore. On the other side of these Olympics, Ovechkin will find himself on the edge of what comes next—a push to complete his NHL legacy or a hero’s welcome to the Kontinental Hockey League. Maybe both.

But right now, Ovie can barely move. Kocharov takes care of that, running onto the ice with an extra-large Russia sweater he’s uncovered to replace the large that makes Ovie look like the kid who showed up late on the first day of house league. The extra-large is still snug on Ovechkin’s six-foot-three, 230-lb. frame, but superstars can’t be choosers.

“Take two steps, then take off!” shouts a British photographer. Ovechkin stands at the goal line, surrounded by light filters and flashes. He nods, digs his blades into the ice and explodes toward the blueline. Click, click, click. “A bit early,” says the photographer. They go through the routine several more times. “Just a little sooner… Start two steps back… Really good, but your stick was in your face…” Ovechkin blows his cheeks out as he curls back, staring off at nothing in particular. Twenty minutes later, Ovie is free and skates out through the visitors’ gate, steps over the bench and says, “Done!” as he hop-jogs to the room. It’s not that he resents the attention, but the posing never really stops. “You just get used to it, you know,” he says as he pulls off his elbow pads. He’s had to. He and his fiancée, Russian tennis star Maria Kirilenko, are a celebrity couple back home. People follow them like a royal family. When Ovechkin heads to Russia after every season, he never leaves the media’s field of vision, says Slava Malamud, a hockey writer who lives near Washington and covers Ovechkin and the Capitals for Sport Express, a Russian daily. Meanwhile, other stars like Evgeni Malkin or Olympic captain Pavel Datsyuk might as well be hibernating. Ovechkin splits his off-season between a sprawling suburban mansion and an apartment in downtown Moscow. “He’s definitely a capital kind of boy. Not a country boy at all,” says Malamud. Ovechkin doesn’t go anywhere without the spotlight—he tweets photos out to more than 650,000 followers when the press isn’t around.

He grew up near the Dynamo metro station in Moscow, a stone’s throw from the Dynamo sports complex. His roots are there. His mother played basketball for Dynamo and won two Olympic gold medals for Russia. His father was a pro soccer player for Dynamo. The sum of these parts is his father’s entertaining personality, his mother’s competitive fire and a deep, burning love of Russia. Ovechkin couldn’t skate when he first entered the Moscow Dynamo hockey program as an eight-year-old. But by 12, Russia had turned its eyes to Ovie as the nation’s next great player. He became a sensation that year at the Moscow championship. He needed a hat trick in the last game to break Pavel Bure’s tournament scoring record—he scored seven. He turned pro with Dynamo when he was 16 and played in the Russian Superleague for four seasons before his Calder-winning rookie debut with the Caps in 2005. Now, Malamud says, he’s one of maybe two or three hockey players in Russia whose name each of its 143 million people know.

Internationally, Ovechkin’s rise coincided with another once-in-a-generation talent in Crosby, inevitably pitting the two against each other for the title of hockey’s greatest player when they were still teenagers. Both have lived up to the hype, evolving into two of the finest hockey players ever. But over time, Crosby has emerged as the winner, the more complete package, and matchups between Ovechkin’s Capitals and Crosby’s Penguins come with less hype than they once did—though the night before Ovie arrived in Columbus, the two teams squared off in Pittsburgh on national TV. The arena was packed with 18,667 people who hissed and booed every time Ovechkin touched the puck or got clipped by a Penguin. He is a villain there, and pretty much everywhere. Disdain showers down, and he revels in it. He revels in the implied respect for his ability. He is lethal, and they know it.

During the game, Ovechkin and his rival slip into their roles: Crosby zips around the ice like a water bug, constantly moving, dictating the flow of the game; Ovechkin lurks in the high slot, drifting in figure eights, hoping to be forgotten long enough to unleash a furious snap shot. It’s the blueprint to their games that makes each great, but separate. In the second period, Ovie flubs a one-timer, and the puck gets caught between his skates. The arena bursts into laughter. No matter. He has his revenge in the third, in a four-on-four, when Brooks Orpik knocks Ovie’s stick from his hands and deems it safe to turn away. In one motion, Ovie grabs the stick and winds up as a pass comes from the corner. Shelf, glove side. He turns and howls ferociously into a crush of boos, his helmet pushed to the back of his head as he throws his entire body into the roar. Still, the Capitals lose 4–3. After scanning the score sheet and engaging in a brief, happy chat in Russian with Evgeni Malkin in the hallway between the dressing rooms (Ovie wearing a way-too-small towel and several large gold chains; Malkin more adequately attired in Penguins workout gear), Ovechkin changes, then climbs into Washington’s team bus for a three-hour midnight trek to Ohio, down the I-70 and deeper into the Rust Belt.

Here in Columbus, his mind is somewhere else. You can see it as he admires the special Olympic stick Bauer sent him. It’s says “Russia” in big Cyrillic letters and is adorned with what appears to be a floral pattern of red, white and blue. He and Washington teammate Mikhail Grabovski admire the art, while several other Caps continue their game of ball hockey in the visitors’ locker room. You can forgive his mind for drifting. Much of his legacy hinges on what he accomplishes next. There’s a lot to think about. For all Ovechkin’s accomplishments—three Hart Trophies, one Art Ross and three Maurice Richard trophies along with recently becoming the sixth-fastest player in NHL history to score 400 goals, doing it in 634 games—he still hasn’t lifted the Stanley Cup or belted out his national anthem after an Olympic gold medal game. Crosby’s done both, which is partially why the debate about the two seems to be over. That grates on him. “I’ve won every major award,” Ovechkin says. “Gold medal and Stanley Cup: those are the two things that I need.”

There is a sense he’s ticking off a list in his mind. As a kid in Moscow, he couldn’t watch North American hockey, but religiously followed NHL players’ newspaper stat lines. That’s how he chose his heroes—“Whoever was the best player was my favourite player,” he says. It was always a numbers game; a checklist to greatness. He holds the two in equal esteem, the Stanley Cup and Olympic gold. And he knows how difficult they are to achieve. In Washington, he’s never played for a serious Cup contender. But with Russia? That’s another story.

Beyond the ice, there are two important things in his life, he says. Family and “Mother Russia.” The first part comes with a painful past that’s tattooed in English on his ribs—“Sergey you are always in my heart”—a tribute to an older brother who was killed after complications from an injury sustained in a car accident when Ovechkin was 10. He played hockey the day Sergey died, Malamud says, because his mother felt it would be therapeutic. His parents were deeply involved in his career from the moment he first put on his skates. His father made the development of his son’s career a full-time job. Sport was already the family’s legacy. Ovechkin was groomed to be the next generation of greatness. For family—and for Russia.

Ovechkin has always proclaimed his patriotism, but its depth was most apparent when he threatened to leave the NHL if its players weren’t allowed to compete in Sochi. Russia was priority No. 1. During his first Olympics in 2006, he was young and carried little blame when the team failed to reach the podium. But Vancouver was different. The Russians were seen as gold medal favorites, especially by their media. When the team flamed out once again, Ovechkin was crushed. He lashed out at the press after losing 7–3 to Canada in the quarterfinals. Those who followed him closely saw how much Ovechkin carried that loss. He slunk through the rest of the NHL season and followed it up with the worst campaign of his career.

Ovie was only down for so long, though. It’d be foolish to count him out. More than anything, Ovechkin is driven by an “unadulterated hatred of losing,” Malamud says. He grew up and out of the funk. He got engaged to Kirilenko. He started laughing with the press, smiling with fans and loving the game again. In last year’s lockout-shortened season—after playing half the year with Dynamo Moscow in the KHL—he returned to lead the NHL in goals and won his third Hart. But if there’s a time to purge the memory of past defeats, that time is now—with a Russian team that hasn’t won gold in men’s hockey since 1992.

Ovechkin pulls off his skates and waxes lyrical about all things motherland. “Just being in Russia is my favourite thing,” he says.

What is the best part?

“Oh, you have to go there to find out.”

What do you miss the most about it? “Friends,” he says. “Everything.”

But what about the expectations? Aren’t you nervous? Aren’t you afraid?

“I’m not nervous about it, but of course I think about it. You start thinking about it more and more because it’s getting closer.” He’s been asked these questions endlessly since Russia won its bid to host the 2014 Olympics. He was one of the celebrities on stage during a national television program as the announcement was made. He was the face of it all back then; he is again, and he appreciates the burden. “It’s very big,” he says. “It’s going to be one of the biggest moments of my life.” The opportunity to realize that moment, though, hangs in the balance, as the Games draw close and Ovechkin works through a nagging lower-body injury.

But for all Ovie’s focus on his immediate health and the next few weeks in Sochi, there’s a bigger question hanging over him: When it’s all done, win or lose, what comes next? If this is the beginning of a climax in Alex Ovechkin’s narrative, where does the denouement lead him? Last season, his close friend Ilya Kovalchuk retired from the NHL, walking away from $77 million just three years into a massive 15-year, $100-million deal with the New Jersey Devils to return to Russia and join the KHL. He was greeted with a hero’s welcome and a fat contract. “He was viewed as a saviour who ditched America in favour of the motherland,” Malamud says. The KHL hasn’t minced words about its desire for Ovechkin to follow. The league’s president, Alexander Medvedev, has said it has a moral right to the 28-year-old star. Ovechkin has said he’ll honour his commitment to the Capitals and that he’s still driven to win pro hockey’s greatest prize. The lack of a Stanley Cup stings him, but would gold on home ice help soothe the pain? “Sergei Brylin won three Stanley Cups,” notes Malamud. “And no one in Russia knows his name.” The Stanley Cup would mean just as much to Ovechkin, perhaps, but to the nation that hails him as a hero, Olympic gold is all that matters. And he’s open to going home, unmoved by pundits talking about the damage leaving the NHL would do to his global brand. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Ovechkin says. “Maybe tomorrow the Washington Capitals buy me out and I go back to Russia and play for Dynamo.”

A buyout seems unlikely for a team that has the game’s top goal scorer locked into a $10-million-a-year contract. But it’s a deal that stretches until 2021. At some point, it may become beneficial for the team to part with the aging, high-priced star burning a little less brightly than he once did. But it’s hard to know how much room a man needs to manoeuvre into his own legacy, whatever he wants it to be. The Capitals are a long way from a Cup. They’re currently on the outside looking in at the playoffs. So let’s not pretend this scenario is implausible: The boyish, ferocious competitor with greying hair, who longs for home more than anything else wakes up one morning “retired”—and pulls on the light-blue Dynamo sweater he first wore as boy. “Everybody has their own choice,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen with me. We’ll see.”

For now, he throws his new Team Russia gear in a hockey bag and stands up with a yawning stretch. In the coming weeks there will be more photographers to appease, more reporters’ notebooks to fill and an underdog superstar’s shot at finally fulfilling a lifelong dream of winning that gold medal for Russia. It’s just another cold, snowy afternoon in middle America—but Ovechkin is as close to Russia as he’s ever been. He heads to the showers, leaving a couple of sweaters in a pile where he sat, still trying to find the perfect fit.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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