NHL.com: Ovechkin's play does the talking

By Alan Adams | Special to NHL.com
January 2, 2003

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA -- Alexander Ovechkin was painfully shy when he was introduced to the media covering the World Junior Championship.

He spoke in whispers when he talked to translator who relayed his answers to a dozen journalists who were hanging on every word spoken by of the Russian teenage phenom.

But his shyness is not an issue once he is on the ice. He's the type of player - and maybe the only player in the tournament - who lifts people out of their seat.

Ovechkin is the closest thing to a superstar in waiting on any of the 10 teams at the World Junior Championship. His talents far exceed his peer group and he is part and parcel why Russia advanced to Friday's semifinals with a 4-0 win-loss record.

Goran Stubb, the Helsinki-based scout who heads the NHL's European Scouting Service, described Ovechkin as having the potential to be better than Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, who is one of the most exciting players in the NHL.

"Outstanding talent," says Stubb. "He is a wonderful skater, with a quick release off his wrist shot and he is a natural goal scorer, very quick with superb acceleration. A prototype of a classy Russian hockey player at its very best. You can see that he loves to play, he is dancing out there."

Most of the scouts at the World Juniors feel that Ovechkin is better at 17 than Kovalchuk, Sergei Samsonov of Boston, Pavel Bure of the New York Rangers, Sergei Fedorov of Detroit and Alexander Mogilny of the Toronto Maple Leafs were at the same age.

The buzz is that Ovechkin has the potential to be better than they all because of his all-around game. He is not just a scorer, although he has a flare for the dramatic when he has the puck. Ovechkin has six goals and an assist in four games. He had hat tricks against the U.S. and Switzerland.

Ovechkin may not be as slick as Alexei Yashin of the New York Islanders, but he more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings with his physical play. He doesn't back down from confrontations, and is known to dive into them on the drop of a hat.

"I've always loved to play physical," said Ovechkin, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, after his news conference.

"He has a tremendous passion for the game," says Phoenix Coyotes General Manager Mike Barnett. "There are many players of his age who have that skill, but his passion is obvious. It's not just his play with the puck. He wins the battles along the boards and in the corners and there is no doubt he will be a great pro."

It seems that Ovechkin was destined to play some kind of sport. His mother, Tatiana, was won Olympic gold medals in basketball for the Soviet Union in 1976 and 1980. He says his mother tells him she realized that he was going to be an athlete when her son was seven years old. Rather than take the elevator to their 10th floor apartment, Ovechkin decided to walk up the stairs.

Ovechkin was seven when he tried on his first pair of skates. He took skating lessons as the Moscow Dynamo sports club, but dropped out because his family was too busy to ferry him back and forth to the sessions. His mother was coaching Dynamo's women's basketball team, and his father, Misha, was the team's GM.

But Ovechkin made an impression on a hockey coach at the Dynamo school, and the coach helped convince him to give it another try. Meanwhile his brother, Sergei, told his parents that Ovechkin should stick with skating and he would take care of getting Ovechkin to and from practice.

Ovechkin said Sergei, who was a wrestler, died a few years ago and there isn't a day when he doesn't think of him and thank him for what he did.

"Every game I play I think of him and I always say thank you to him," said Ovechkin. "He put me back on the ice."

Ovechkin scored twice in his first minor hockey game against the fabled Central Red Army team and decided hockey was fun. And he's been scoring goals ever since.

Ovechkin made Moscow Dynamo as a 16-year-old, and he's held his own playing against men 40 and 50 pounds heavier and in some cases 10 and 15 years older.

Ovechkin grew up idolizing former Dynamo and Soviet star Alexander Maltsev, who when Ovechkin was making a name for himself in Moscow as a young teenager he went to see the prodigy for himself and came away so impressed he invited him out to skate with some of the Soviet veterans.

"I love the way he played," said Ovechkin. "He was able to control the puck, he saw the ice, and he had great vision. He had a great shot as well."

Ovechkin missed being eligible for the 2003 Entry Draft by two days and the way his career is going, he's almost a sure bet to go first overall in 2004. If he had a choice, he'd love to play his favorite team, the San Jose Sharks. The reason is this: when NHL games were first televised in Russia, the Sharks were one of the first teams he saw and he loved the logo.

"Owen Nolan is my favorite player," he says.

Ovechkin knows he's touted as a first overall pick in '04, but he doesn't think about the Entry Draft much.

"I don't care if it's No. 1, No. 2 or No. 10 in the draft," he said. "My goal now is to win the gold at this tournament and then come back to my team and play well for the Dynamo."

The fact that the WJC is being hosted by Canada hasn't escaped Ovechkin for a second. He knows as well as anyone that Canadians are passionate about hockey and he's aware of the storied history of Canada and Russia on an ice rink.

"This tournament is taking place in a very special country which is the birthplace of the game of hockey so it's very important for me," Ovechkin says. "My personal goal is not so much to show what I'm capable of doing, but to win the gold medal."

He simply loves to play the game.

"I enjoy myself tremendously," said Ovechkin. "This is my life. This is the air I breathe."

 

 

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