Sid/Ovie (Part One)

Rarely will Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin be on the ice together during the fourth annual NHL Winter Classic. They will hardly be on the ice at all—about forty-five seconds out of every three minutes. Hockey is mostly craft, and the overwhelming majority of NHL players are craftsmen, so for two-thirds of the game Crosby and Ovechkin will watch from the bench as their teammates ply their trades: checking and harrying, physical debilitation, defense. At work with and against each other on the ice, these pluggers and muckers will generate the play, interlocked and rotating, a sort of living engine impenetrable to both its constituent parts and the uninitiated. Momentum is created when one line of players is more productive than their rivals, and the next line is as well, and so on, the mechanism of the game shifting with them from one end of the ice to the other. A good hockey game develops a rhythm out of its shifts in momentum. When their coaches sense this rhythm allows it, Crosby and Ovechkin will join the game. They will spend much of their ice time along the boards or away from the puck, working within the play as others do. But every fourth shift or so, Crosby and Ovechkin will find chances to play in opposition to the game, as ghosts in the machine, with fugitive grace that outside of hockey’s scheme would be impossible to imagine, much less appreciate.

The surface of ice is slippery because its molecules have unfilled bonds that fasten, shear, and roll like ball bearings underneath anything that touches them. As they roll they reveal a new, softer layer, which has still more loose layers below it. Even at absolute zero, ice slides this way. Laboratorians at Berkeley once used an atomic microscope to see past the 0.000008mm-thick semi-fluid surface, and they found that under it ice has a friction coefficient as hard and rough as rubber.

The friction coefficient of tonight’s ice, to be skated on in a regular season game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, is significant. Rain pushed back the start time to 8, and now five probes in the ice are relaying information about its poor condition to the team of experts who have tended to it for the past week. Their sheet is 20,350 gallons of paint and water sprayed two inches deep over freezing pipes coursing with 3,000 gallons of coolant. It must be kept at 22 degrees Fahrenheit for its friction coefficient to remain 0.005. A rise of one degree in its temperature will increase the coefficient by .023 percent. The ice will become what hockey players call slow, or soft, and their skating will be labored and the puck out of true. Their passes will stick and their shots, already teased by the wind blowing through the open south end of the stadium, will bounce. The current temperature in Pittsburgh is 51 degrees, with humidity percentage in the mid-80s. The forecast calls for rain.

Both Crosby and Ovechkin were tasked with reviving financially moribund franchises when they entered the NHL following its 2005 lockout. A lopsided antagonism between their franchises was already in place—in the previous two decades Pittsburgh had beaten Washington in six of seven playoff meetings, two of them en route to championships. Along with their franchises Crosby and Ovechkin became the faces of the NHL, a league never able to market star power besides Wayne Gretzky. Many hoped that their careers would prove a rivalrous boon for the sport, akin to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Neither has disappointed so far. In his first season, Ovechkin scored 106 points to Crosby’s 102 and was named rookie of the year. In his second season, Crosby scored 120 points and became the first teenager to win a scoring title in any North American major league. In his third season, Ovechkin scored sixty-five goals, more than any other left wing in the history of the league. Each has been named captain of his team. Crosby was judged most outstanding player by his peers in 2007, and Ovechkin in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Crosby was the league’s most valuable player in 2007, and Ovechkin in 2008 and 2009. Ovechkin has been voted the best Russian NHLer by his countrymen every year he has played. Crosby has been awarded the Order of Nova Scotia.

They first competed against each another in the final of the 2005 World Junior Championship. Crosby separated Ovechkin’s shoulder with a body check, and Canada won 6-1. In their NHL meetings, Crosby has scored forty-eight points to Ovechkin’s forty-two, and Pittsburgh leads the series 16-11. Crosby assisted on the game-winning goal in the seventh game of their one playoff match-up in 2009; Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup. They met again in the 2010 Winter Olympics; Team Canada bodied Ovechkin relentlessly and won 7-3. Later, Crosby scored the gold medal winning goal.

Crosby is the NHL’s active leader in assists per game with 0.87. That average has been falling since 2008, a season in which he tallied twice as many assists as goals but still lost the Stanley Cup Final. The next season he scored the most goals in the league. He leads it now with thirty-two. Twenty-one percent of his shots have gone into the net this year. He is second in assists with thirty-three. Over his career he has averaged 1.4 points per game, more than any active player. He has 571 total points.

Ovechkin is second in career points per game among active players (1.31). He is the leader for goals per game (0.65). In every year of his career he has led the league in shots taken, and this one is no exception (174 thus far). He shoots about five-and-a-half times per game. He is on pace for only twenty-nine goals, by far his worst statistical season. He has twice as many assists, most coming from goals scored off of shots he has missed, which this year has been 92 percent. He has 571 total points.

On his first shift, Ovechkin chases a puck dumped in deep by his centerman. He crosses the blue line on a crescent and circles behind his right wing, who unknowingly skates interference on a defender. Ovechkin dummies a route to the puck as Pittsburgh’s goaltender moves behind the net to retrieve it and hand it off to the right defenseman. When both Penguins turn their backs, Ovechkin effortlessly alters his glide, then he accelerates with a couple of clipped, bowlegged strides. The defenseman is swinging behind the net with his head down when his left side partner spots Ovechkin and screams “REVERSE!” The right defenseman backhands the puck to his partner and in the same motion pivots away from Ovechkin, who has leaned so far forward in his glide that he has left his feet, his cocked fists exploding away from his chest in a kangaroo punch. Ovechkin catches the defenseman’s left shoulder and spins him. His partner hurriedly clears the puck, but it is turned over at the blue line and brought against the net in a scoring chance. Play is then whistled dead, the support staff given time to replace the board stanchions that were broken by Ovechkin’s check.

The Winter Classic was an instant tradition, an outdoor game begun on New Year’s Day 2008 by John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer. Collins joined the NHL in 2006 after fifteen years at the NFL, where he was the league’s senior vice president of marketing and sales. Collins began in that league during Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s reign, when the NFL became less a league than a branded media conglomerate. The revolutionary thinking of the time, which turned the NFL into the most profitable sports league in the world, was that the game of football could no longer sell itself, at least not to the extent that the NFL desired. So Collins and the league turned each game into a stand alone, packaged entertainment experience to be marketed to casual fans. Under Collins, NFL sponsorships increased by $1.9 billion and pro football’s audience grew leaps and bounds. He was named one of America’s top fifty marketers in 2003.

At the NHL, Collins has overseen a 66 percent rise in advertising and sponsorship revenue. He won a “Stevie” as 2010 Executive of the Year. The Winter Classic won the 2009 Sports Business Award for “Sports Event of the Year.” Four of the five most-watched NHL regular-season broadcasts have been Winter Classic games. More people will watch the 2011 iteration than have watched any hockey game since 1975. Forbes called the Winter Classic the “Best New Sporting Event Brand.” According to the magazine, the Winter Classic follows to a tee the modern formula for sports entertainment success. To achieve the highest return on investment, the game should be held on a single day, lending it gravitas and giving casual viewers a reason to tune in. And it should be marketed as an event steeped in the brand’s core equities, in this case the history of America’s second-oldest professional league, the authenticity of the only sport bound to nature in a meaningful way, and a very particular, mythopoetic nostalgia.

Canadians did not invent ice hockey. In 1749 British soldiers watched Mi’kmaq Indians play something like it on the frozen Dartmouth Lakes, and it was during the inclemencies that stun all of their land for half the calendar year that Canadians refined their form of it. Ice hockey is now a Canadian’s birthright; their literature calls it “The Game of Our Lives.” Winter is celebrated there because it brings hockey, and hockey is the means by which Canada, forever dominated by other nations, proves its uniqueness: here sprouts kinetic beauty when nothing else can flourish. Canadians’ implicit belief is that hockey separated from climate and geography in arenas is unnatural, a concession to commerce and the rest of the world. The national ideal is shinny on frozen ponds, stunned rivers or hoarfrosted lakes, skate strides zippering the ice, crunch and sibilance.

The National Hockey League was founded in 1917 out of the newly defunct National Hockey Association. The NHA had disintegrated after its most popular team, the Toronto 228th Battalion, was called to fight in World War I. Canadian armed forces entered that war under British command but fought so well that they won their own authority. At the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force captured the escarped town of Thelus, something the French and the English had failed to do. Conn Smythe, a forward with the 40th (Sportsmen’s) Battery of Hamilton, won a Military Cross when he alone charged a German position with his service revolver. “I put the pistol in his stomach and fired, and he cursed me all the way down to the ground,” Smythe said. He later founded the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. The trophy for the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs is named in his honor.

Washington is setting pace when Ovechkin’s fourth shift and Crosby’s fifth coincide. There is a face-off in Pittsburgh’s defensive zone, and the Penguins’ coach sends out Crosby, a center, because he has won more face-offs this season than any other player. Ovechkin is a left wing and does not take face-offs. Instead, he lines up behind his centerman and coils for a direct shot.

Crosby wins the draw cleanly and accelerates out of the zone. His defenseman passes the puck to the left wing, who passes it to the right wing near center ice. Ovechkin is the only Capital forward in the neutral zone. His job is to keep the puck from reaching Crosby. Crosby knows that Ovechkin is a transitional player, predatory, his foil. Rather than skate away from him, Crosby skates toward him. Ovechkin wants to steal the pass, so he leaves Crosby and turns to the right winger. Crosby undercuts. Washington’s left defenseman, traded to the Capitals from the opposite conference a few months ago, takes Ovechkin’s defensive support for granted and skates high up in the middle of the ice. The Penguin puckcarrier looks to where any other center would be, lazing along the boards in support, and sees nothing. Only Crosby knows how open he is. He shouts “Dupey!” at his linemate and receives a startled pass that he chips into the offensive third. The last Capitals defender turns to race him for it. The puck skitters across the pulpy ice like dropped change and settles in front and to the left of the Capital. He strides off of his inside edge, pushing his 208 pounds into Crosby and away from the puck.

The blade of a hockey skate isn’t quite a blade but a groove. It has two edges, and the depth of the hollow between them differs according to players’ preferences. Most NHLers today skate on shallow, wide hollows; Crosby prefers narrow edges that pinch the ice, for bursts of acceleration and sharp turns. Normally he skates on a 7/16-inch hollow, but tonight the ice is so soft that he’s opted for an 11/16. Grace is a warmer word for efficiency, and Sidney Crosby is by far the most efficient skater in the NHL. He keeps his feet close to or in contact with the ice at all times. He seems to rock rather than stride. A player’s acceleration, his first step, is crucial, because typically he strokes only three or four times before turning, breaking, or gliding. Crosby’s skating isn’t the fastest in the league, but his first step is the quickest. Forty-five percent of skating power comes from the hip, 40 percent from the knee, and 15 from the ankle. Crosby has ropy hamstrings and thighs shingled with muscle. His gluteals are the league’s most massive, and his quadriceps puff off of the bone. He is nautically stern on and off the ice; it is impossible to imagine him losing his equilibrium. In wide-waisted hockey pads he is shaped like a weather buoy.

The Capitals defender has forced him a yard wide of the puck when Crosby pitches. He wedges his right leg into the ice and makes a keel of his perpendicular left. Dug in, he’s as imperturbable as anything clamped in an engineer’s angle vise. Then, striding once, he’s past, and the defenseman must armlock him, a penalty.

Ice hockey wasn’t played in Russia until 1946, when the decision was made on high that the Soviet Union was to become the world’s greatest nation at the Olympic sport of hockey.

The father of Soviet hockey, Anatoli Tarasov, had never seen Canadians play the game and didn’t care to. At a time when European nations were starting hockey programs with imported Canadian coaches and advisors, Tarasov envisioned ice hockey played according to the strengths of the Soviet character. “Sport is destined to improve people, cultivate them morally, and that’s why the Canadian style of hockey is absolutely unacceptable to us,” he wrote.

For centuries before Canada had its first prime minister, Russians played bandy, a hobbling form of stick soccer set on frozen lakes. They had already developed outstanding passing and skating skills when Tarasov implemented the teachings of Lloyd Percival, a Canadian trainer shunned by the NHL for the rationalism he imposed upon the game. Percival had determined that pro hockey players skated 22.3 miles per hour without the puck and 21.1 miles per hour with it. Those speeds dropped during games to between 16.9 and 18.8 miles per hour. Percival recommended a larger ice surface, proper skating technique, better conditioning, and less physical play for a faster, more skillful game.

Not a single artificial ice rink existed in Soviet Russia or its vassal states, so Tarasov’s teams practiced in the winter on natural ice. In the early spring they skated through the night, when the ice was still hard. To close the gap between the USSR and other hockey-playing nations, Tarasov had his players train year-round. They swam, rowed, lifted weights, performed gymnastics, and jogged in sand to build ankle strength. They played games of soccer and basketball by hockey rules in order to learn tactics and proper positioning. Eventually, the Soviets built an open-air rink in Moscow for promising junior figure skaters. It was one-tenth the size of a regulation rink. Tarasov’s teams booked it for practice between 2 and 6 AM In the summer they would erect a tent to keep the sun off of the ice before practicing in shorts.

The first regulation-size, artificial ice rink in the Soviet Union was the Palace of Sports of the Central Lenin Stadium built in 1957. Until then, Russian league games were played on temporary rinks in the middle of soccer pitches in front of 20,000 to 50,000 spectators.

There is a Tarasov Division in the Kontinental Hockey League, the newest iteration of what remains of the Soviet League. Its twenty-three teams play out of Russia, Belarus, Latvia, and Kazakhstan. Its commissioner is Alexander Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors of the Russian energy corporation Gazprom. It is the second-best hockey league in the world.

Salaries in the KHL are tax-free. The average capacity of league arenas is 7,660. Of its 721 players, 514 are Russian. None of its teams can sign more than five foreign players. About 3,000 fans watched the 2009 KHL all-star game played on a temporary rink in Red Square.

The NHL currently lacks a transfer agreement with the Russian International Hockey Federation. There is no standardized fee structure that allows players to leave Russian teams to join NHL clubs and vice versa.

In the 1990-1991 season, there were fifteen NHL players from Russia and the now-former Soviet republics. In 2000-2001, there were eighty-seven. In 2009-2010, thirty-eight. Forty Russians, one Lithuanian, two Latvians, two Belarusians, one Ukrainian, and one Uzbekistani were drafted by NHL teams in 1992. Thirty-nine Russians, six Kazakhstanis, two Latvians, and one Ukrainian were drafted in 2000. Eight Russians and one Latvian were drafted in 2010.

Mark Kelley, director of amateur scouting for the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, has said: “I think it’s fair to say that there is a Russian factor. It’s because the KHL is such a viable alternative for the players that you have to weigh it in.”

Of the Russians drafted in the first round since 2000, eleven are playing in the NHL, fourteen are playing in the KHL, two are playing in minor leagues, one has retired, and one has died. (Alexei Cherepanov, at the time the greatest rookie scorer in Soviet/Russian league history, collapsed on the bench during a KHL game and was taken to a hospital thirty-five minutes later in an ambulance that lacked a defibrillator.)

The Centennial All-Star Team, as voted by the International Ice Hockey Federation:

Goaltender: Vladislav Tretiak (Soviet Union)
First defenseman: Vyacheslav Fetisov (Soviet Union)
Second defenseman: Börje Salming (Sweden)
First winger: Valeri Kharlamov (Soviet Union)
Second winger: Sergei Makarov (Soviet Union)
Center: Wayne Gretzky (Canada)

Washington’s fourth line forces the puck into Pittsburgh’s defensive zone at the end of the first shift of the second period. Then they go off for a change. This fourth line has been hurriedly thrown over the boards by Washington’s coach whenever Crosby hits the ice. Pittsburgh is the home team, allowed to alter its lines after the opponent, but the coach will not have his rolling personnel changes upset by Washington. Still, the fourth line is winning its shifts against Crosby.

Crosby is the last man from his line escaping the ice when Ovechkin floats by. Unlike Crosby, whose position demands that he follow the puck all over the ice, Ovechkin on a shift is more often still than sprinting. In moments such as this one, when Ovechkin lurks apart from the other players on the ice, the game hums uncomfortably. While Crosby hurries to the bench, two Penguins forecheck the Washington defenseman with the puck. Ovechkin, on the far side of the ice and lost to everyone, fins his stick to call for a pass. The puck comes to him and he attacks the net on a breakaway.

There is rain falling on the ice and it wakes behind Ovechkin, who has his head up and trained on the Penguins lanky goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury. Ovechkin is pulling the puck on his backhand to his forehand just as he reaches the slot twenty feet in front of goal. Fleury’s is one of the best glove hands in hockey, which he flashes in old-school saves when he drops into a full split, doubling over at the waist to shoot out his stalky left arm and snatch the puck from the top corner. Ovechkin knows this but thinks his shot is better. He glides ahead of the puck, readying his wrist shot, but in his periphery sees a Penguin defenseman, so he pushes the puck ahead to his backhand just before the defenseman misses with a diving sweep. Fleury is trying to mirror Ovechkin’s stickwork with his legs while skating backwards into his net, but Ovechkin’s speed overwhelms him. Fleury’s glove hand falls from 1 o’clock to 3 o’clock, and the net is unlocked. With flashbulbs twinkling, Ovechkin forehands. But the puck skiis up a frozen rain drop, and his shot is dubbed into Fleury’s split left pad.

Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin first skated at age 8, not long after the Soviet Union collapsed, at Hockey Club Dinamo Moscow. Dinamo was the KGB’s team and the great rival to CSKA, the team of the Red Army. Dinamo and CSKA were at the top of a pyramid of sports schools instituted in 1960 that for decades manufactured the athletic heroes of the Soviet Union. These schools admitted any 8-year-old boy who showed promise at try outs and trained him every day, six days a week, before and after in-house schooling, as long as his promise held out. When the boy turned 12, he concentrated on his strongest sport. If there was doubt as to which sport that was, a muscle biopsy analysis was performed. A cork of brawn, often screwed out of the boy’s thigh, was tested for its prevalence of either fast-twitch or slow-twitch muscle fiber. A child with more slow-twitch muscle fiber would train in an aerobic sport—distance running or swimming—while one with more fast-twitch muscle fiber would train in hockey. Once singled out as a hockey player, the 12-year-old boy played for the same coach until he turned 18, or until he burned out. If the boy was exceptionally good, he would make it to his school’s senior Soviet League team. If he wasn’t, he would be dropped from the program and, by extension, organized ice hockey in the Soviet Union. The boy’s coach wielded this power over him; he had no choice but to impassively absorb all criticism and abuse if he wished to continue playing hockey. Even after the collapse, players brought up in the Soviet system remained emotionless and inscrutable on the ice. They had been, in the words of Tarasov, “tempered from day to day, like steel is tempered.”

Young Ovechkin, known to family and friends as Sasha, had a prized collection of trading cards that included the first wave of Russians to play in the NHL—Makarov, Fetisov, Kasatonov, Larionov. He would fan them on the floor of his family’s two-bedroom apartment after having struggled to stay upright on his skates at practice. His mother, Tatiana Ovechckina, reluctantly paid $10 per session for private skating lessons from the coaches at Dinamo, who taught him to lower his center of gravity by halving the shaft of his hockey stick. Ovechkin was playing hockey against his mother’s wishes. She had wanted him to play basketball, as she had. Ovechkina was point guard and captain of the Soviet women’s teams that won gold at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. She was also an executive within Dinamo, where she had played club basketball. Her influence kept Ovechkin in the hockey school but not in games. His coach wouldn’t play him, and he hid on the bench.

Ovechkin wears #8 in honor of his mother but plays ice hockey because of his older brother, Sergei. Sergei disregarded their parents and enrolled Ovechkin in Dinamo’s hockey school. When Ovechkin was 10, Sergei died from complications following a car accident. Since then, after every goal he scores, Ovechkin points to the sky. Sergei’s name, and the names of Ovechkin’s grandfathers, are written in Cyrillic on the inside cuffs of his hockey gloves. On the ribs under his left arm he has tattooed in English “Sergei you are always in my heart.” Sergei’s nickname for him was “Toad.”

Later on the same long shift, Ovechkin takes a breakout pass and lopes through the neutral zone. He backs up the defenseman before him, who like anyone defending Ovechkin is counting on help from the backchecker closing from behind. Ovechkin is a left wing who shoots right-handed; he plays what is called the off-wing. Because of his handedness, an off-winger isn’t helpful along the boards in his own zone, and can’t pass safely in the attacking third. But carrying the puck up the left side of the ice on his forehand, Ovechkin can shoot quickly along more acute angles to the net. He shades toward the boards as he enters the offensive zone. The defenseman wants to stay within one stick length of him, so he slides nearer. If this defenseman were weaker, Ovechkin would lower his right shoulder and push past him, tracking the same hooked path to the net as a hurricane-making landfall. Instead, Ovechkin slows, waiting for the backchecker behind him to hurry and fill the lane the defenseman vacated when he approached the boards and lined up his right shoulder with Ovechkin’s left. Ovechkin feels that the defenseman now wants to close the gap between them, so he offers the puck out in front of himself. The defender shifts his balance to turn and reach for it. Ovechkin’s play is now in motion. He will backhand the puck lightly, almost accidentally, but hard enough that the defender’s first grope will miss and the puck will slide between his skates. Ovechkin will then jump around the defender, collect the puck, and brake hard so the backchecker skates past him. Then he will move to the middle of the ice, dallying, until the backchecker ticks in line with the puck.

Alex Ovechkin is the best and hardest shooter in the NHL. But even he will be stopped about 90 percent of the time if a goaltender is able to monitor his shot. Hockey netkeeping for the most part developed as an unconsidered form, with goalies reacting to shots only after they had been fired and stopping them with their extremities, making “saves.” But in the past twenty years, goaltending has been quantified, and “blocking” has become technique. Goalies today have two stances—the one they show the shooter, which is upright and imposing, and the one they fall into as soon as the shooter releases the puck. They anticipate the puck’s path while in their first stance and move to intercept it with the center of their bodies in their second. Saving a puck is now considered a reflexive fluke a goaltender should have been positioned to block. Still, Ovechkin shoots more pucks past goaltenders than anyone else. He uses a lightweight composite stick made primarily of graphite. Composite sticks flex much farther than wood sticks, directly transferring more power from a player’s torquing body through the stick to the puck. Using this kind of stick, the heel and illegal crook of its blade like a golf wedge with a banana curve, Ovechkin has wired wrist shots past goaltenders from a standstill at the blue line.

Almost always, though, he shoots same-foot snap shots on the rush. Canadian NHLers were introduced to this technique at the 1972 Summit Series, when an announcer saw it and said that the Soviets “didn’t even know which foot to shoot off.” Ovechkin will keep his skates pointed at the net, his head up, and his hands close to his body. He will hold the puck near him, in a position from which he can shoot, pass, or deke. Suddenly, imperceptibly, he will transfer all of his weight onto his right skate. He will lean into his stick and focus this weight onto the heel of his right hand, which will have slid down to the middle of his shaft. The composite stick will flex and load with torque, a shallow J. Then he will roll his wrists over, back, and over, his blade closing, opening, and closing as the puck is guided along its contour. Sometimes, to transfer even more power to the puck, he will lift his left leg off the ice and kick it out violently.

Ovechkin will wait to shoot this way until the man defending him gets into correct defensive position, putting his body between the puck and the net. In the meantime, Ovechkin will toe the puck with his blade, changing its position at his side so that the goalie must shift continuously, minutely, to stay square with it. When the defender has fronted him, Ovechkin will then deliberately shoot the puck through his legs. There is no windup, and the puck is obscured by his defenseman, so instead of anticipating this shot the modern goaltender can only follow technique, which demands that he play percentages and drop into a blocking posture on his knees. Ovechkin will have aimed for a corner of the net that had been covered by the goaltender before he went down. Nearly all of his goals come in this way; he doesn’t scavenge the goalmouth. What he does in the course of his shot—attack with speed, keep the goaltender from setting, change the angle of attack, shoot unannounced—is what five players are coached to do on offense together. Considering what must align in sequence on the rush for him to score, and how often it all does, the mind and body at work in Alex Ovechkin seem almost occult, able as they are to conjure syzygy at will.

Tonight the ice doesn’t cooperate. The puck kicks up like a flint spark and hits the defenseman’s skates. Ovechkin takes a frustrated shot from the distance that misses.

At the Olympics, in the playoffs, and again now tonight, teams have exerted selective pressure on him. Defensemen attack him as soon as he enters the offensive zone and keep their sticks between their feet. Backcheckers dog him so he can neither stop short nor cut to the middle. Together they engage him with stick and body, a sprung jaw trap. In response, Ovechkin has behaved like a beast made mad by captivity, following his same route up and down the ice over and over again. His numbers have disappeared with his time and space. As a goal scorer, Ovechkin must evolve. Should he not, he’ll most likely still have a hall-of-fame career. But to posterity he’ll seem an aberration.

Seconds later the puck is in the back of Washington’s net, a breakaway goal scored on a perfectly executed counter attack.

Alex Ovechkin was already the consensus #1 pick in the 2004 NHL draft when he came over to the US. Nevertheless, he participated in a battery of evaluative strength and endurance tests for draft-ready prospects. In the maximal oxygen consumption test, Ovechkin scored the highest of the 300 prospects. He generated 680 watts in a power test in which the average was 552. In recovery tests, his body was the quickest to recuperate.

In the course of his first brief meeting with the owner of the Washington Capitals, 20-year-old Ovechkin ate an entire cantaloupe because he’d never seen one before. He first threw a baseball on the mound of RFK Stadium, delivering a perfect strike to start a Washington Nationals game. He first swung a golf club on a 160-yard par three, stroking a hole in one with a borrowed 4-iron.

He collects sports cars, and when he was given the key to Washington, D.C., he made a half-serious decree abolishing speed limits for the rest of the day. His last off-season was split between his Russian dacha, his Miami Beach penthouse, and the television studios in which he shot commercials for CCM and ESPN. He has never relied on an interpreter and seems to delight in practicing his halting English. Of himself he has said, “Russian machine never breaks.” His linemate who played with Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, and Peter Forsberg once said,  “Mash them all together in a bigger body and that’s Alex.”

Ovechkin has used his 6’2″, 220-pound person to end the career of one player and fracture the ribs and clavicle of another. He has been suspended twice for being overly physical. His coach believes his style of play can be “pretty reckless.” He has blue eyes set wide in a heavy brow, and the hair on his head and face looks as if it’s never been cultivated. When he smiles, a square of tongue fills in for his missing front tooth. He celebrates goals with vehemence, flings his body into the boards or pretends his stick is aflame. Last year in a game against Pittsburgh, he knocked Crosby’s helmet off his head and flapped his arms at him like chicken wings.

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