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Thursday, September 26, 2013
Updated: October 1, 12:05 PM ET
Ovechkin ready for more pressure

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Late in the summer, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin made his way to a Moscow airport to pick up an unusual visitor: his head coach, Adam Oates.

It was a trip Oates didn't need to make. He could have simply waited until Ovechkin returned to the Washington area before training camp to catch up. But Oates felt it was important to meet Ovechkin on his home turf to congratulate the Caps' best player in person on having earned his third Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, a chance to reach out and acknowledge that there is different than here.

"I wanted to go see Ovi because he won the Hart and I just wanted to personally touch base with him," Oates told ESPN.com recently.

It was a trip shot through with nuance. It wasn't just that Ovechkin had won another chunk of hardware -- albeit the most important individual award in the NHL -- but that the big winger had trusted Oates when the rookie head coach moved him from his traditional position on the left side to the right side. And that, in the face of some difficult times and a flood of criticism, the move bore fruit with Ovechkin tearing up the league in the second half of the 2013 season en route to his third Maurice "Rocket" Richard trophy for most goals, and another division title for the Capitals.

"Like I've said all along, I believe in communication, and he won the biggest award we have in our league," Oates said. "I'm still sensitive to the fact that he changed his position for us. He was willing to trust me to do that. I'm glad he had success and I just wanted to go and show some effort -- I guess is a good way to put it -- not just wait for him to come here. I wanted to go and show some effort and let him know that it was awesome."

"Awesome" and "Ovechkin" are two terms that have been pretty much mutually exclusive the past couple of seasons, with his goal total declining from 65 in 2007-08 to 32 in 2010-11. In fact, the "What's up with Ovi?" debate has raged almost nonstop among the media, national commentators, fans and even players themselves, as one of the most dynamic players in the NHL saw his production fall and his reputation take repeated hits.

All of which made Ovechkin's renaissance under Oates last season so dramatic. It sharply illustrates the often delicate relationship between high-end talent and the men who must coax the most out of those talented figures. It also reinforces the idea that all players are not created equal, and that to blithely suggest "a hockey player is a hockey player," regardless of where they come from, is near-sighted at best.

Adam Oates and Alex Ovechkin
Adam Oates has made it clear he's 100 percent behind star winger Alex Ovechkin.
"I got to see him on his turf with some of his buddies," Oates said. "We went to his restaurant. Just every little time you do something like that you appreciate the other side maybe."

What was the most important thing Oates -- who was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player last November -- learned from the trip?

"Not that I was ever questioning it, but I'm sure it made him feel good that someone cares about [him] over here too," Oates said. "Good question, though. There's not an easy answer. I wasn't really trying to do anything but show him we care, show him I care."

Oates' goodwill mission (he also got a chance to see top Washington prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov) came at an interesting time for Russian players given the upcoming 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the rise of the Kontinental Hockey League, the defection of star Ilya Kovalchuk from New Jersey back to the KHL, and the growing reticence of NHL teams to draft young Russian players.

Ovechkin was in Moscow having dinner with his friends when he found out he'd won the Hart. He was pleased with the award, as he was the first two times he won it, he said in a recent interview, talking about how the award is a reflection not just of his play but that of his teammates and the help provided by the Caps' coaching staff.

As for being aware of the criticism that has nipped at his heels in recent times, Ovechkin is nothing if not self-aware.

"Of course I read the newspapers. I watch the TV when the people say something, what they say it's good things or bad things. I say 'OK, they're going to say bad things about me right now, I'm ready for it. Then, they're going to say good things about me, I'm ready for it,'" Ovechkin explained. "I'm not 21 years old. Mentally ... this guy tells bad things about me, I've got to do something different. I'm a grown man. I have experience. I've been in all situations before. So I'm OK with it."

And there's the paradox of being Alexander Ovechkin, no? He is not like other Russians. He does not hide in the shadows like Alexander Semin did for years in Washington. He does not flee from reporters like Evgeni Malkin does even now in Pittsburgh, where he has made an art of hiding in Sidney Crosby's shadow. He is not painfully shy like Pavel Datsyuk is in Detroit.

Ovechkin is the captain of an NHL team. He is the face of the Washington Capitals. And given his long-standing rivalry with Crosby, he shared some of the burden of dragging the NHL out of the wilderness following the 2005-06 lockout. He gets it. But in getting it, Ovechkin isn't necessarily a warm, fuzzy figure, at least not all the time.

A week before our chat with him at the Caps' practice facility, Ovechkin had flown from Russia for an annual league-organized series of interviews and photo shoots at the Prudential Center in Newark. While the day started well, by the end of it Ovechkin was a bear, providing terse one-word answers and grumbling at the demands being placed on him.

On this day, however, he is gracious, candid and seemingly in good spirits with the new season at hand. He talked about the process of learning to deal with what people say and write about him.

"Of course you get mad," Ovechkin said. "One day you're upstairs and then you're downstairs; it goes back and forth, back and forth. You can see each player went through this. It's part of the career, it's part of your life. It doesn't ... matter if you're a hockey player or a soccer player or football player, everything's going to be the same."

Having endured those ups and downs, the question that looms now is whether he's truly turned some sort of corner.

"Yeah. Of course. I know what you mean. To be honest with you, last year was probably one of the toughest years that I've had because [of] all the situations: new systems, new coach, how it's going to be," Ovechkin said. "Soon I found out that I have a very good relationship with Oatsy. My teammates play well, they give me passes, they find me [in] the right spot, so I get the puck and when you feel that kind of trust from everybody, whole organization, you're going to feel great."

One wonders whether Crosby or Steven Stamkos would have come in for the same level of scrutiny, criticism that has dogged Ovechkin the past two seasons, had they found themselves in a similar slump. Veteran NHLer Mike Knuble doesn't think so.

Knuble played with Ovechkin for three years in Washington and has played against him repeatedly as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers since Ovechkin's arrival in the league. He said the expectation was that Ovechkin would charge out of the gate after the lockout ended having played in the Kontinental Hockey League with teammate and oft-times linemate Nicklas Backstrom. Instead, the Caps and Ovechkin staggered from the outset, the Capitals at one point falling to last in the NHL standings.

"The Ovi haters were just in heaven. 'I told you so, I told you so. This guy's this, this guy's that,'"Knuble told ESPN.com recently.

Then, watching Ovechkin and the Capitals slowly catch fire and tear through the NHL in the second half to win their fifth Southeast Division title in the past six seasons, Knuble admitted to being somewhat in awe.

"Ovi took over the league," Knuble said. "He basically willed them into the playoffs. It was very impressive."

Down the stretch, Ovechkin scored 14 times in 13 April games -- an NHL record for the month -- and ended up with a league-best 32 goals. He finished tied for the most power-play points in the league (27) and the Caps' owned the most efficient power play in the league. Washington went 11-1-1 in April and was 17-4-2 in its last 23 games.

That the Capitals would then blow series leads of 2-0 and 3-2 to the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, a series in which Ovechkin would manage just one goal and one assist, would merely add fuel to the fire that seemingly rages nonstop around the big winger. Is he one of the game's greatest talents or a poseur?

When it was announced that Ovechkin had been voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association as the Hart Trophy winner, there was more than a little pushback from commentators who felt he wasn't a deserving recipient. Caps owner Ted Leonsis figured otherwise, saying he felt the award "was a correct assessment of his value to our team."

"I thought it was a great payoff for the amount of work he put into it both physically and emotionally, for what he had to undergo to get to that point," Leonsis told ESPN.com.

The high-profile owner admitted he has always been protective of Ovechkin, the player who has been the catalyst for the team's evolution from hockey backwater to one of the best markets in the United States. And when Ovechkin slumped from the lofty standards set early in his career and the critics emerged en masse, suggesting Ovechkin was out of shape, that he'd lost his drive, that he was more interested in other things, Leonsis bristled.

"It just felt like piling on to me," he said. "His bad seasons are most players' in the NHL's best seasons."

Does it tick off Oates, no stranger to criticism when he was a player en route to the Hall of Fame?

"Of course it does, because the guy I know is not that guy," Oates said. "The other thing is people don't realize, which I do, is he cares about his family deeply. He cares about his family deeply and his friends. Deeply. They're here. They're part of his life everywhere. Tell me that's not a good trait. I know it's got nothing to do with hockey, but it's still a great trait in a person. Character."

Caps GM George McPhee recalled that in his job interview, Oates insisted one of his first orders of business if he were hired would be to move Ovechkin to the right side.

"He was the only coaching candidate who pulled out video and showed us how it works," McPhee told ESPN.com. "I was all for it and Adam was smart enough to do it the right way. We're glad it worked. We're lucky it worked."

As for worrying about what people are saying about his captain, McPhee has been around Ovechkin long enough to know that if it doesn't bother the player, it shouldn't bother the GM.

Even if he's followed all that's said or written, "I don't know that it's ever gotten to him. He's comfortable with it," McPhee said. "That's just the way it is. We have more important things to think about."

A couple of years ago, longtime Caps netminder and Ovechkin's former teammate Olie Kolzig made headlines when he suggested Ovechkin needed to sort out his priorities.

"I gave an answer about Ovi needs to stop acting like a rock star and just focus about stuff on the ice," Kolzig told ESPN.com. "It got blown a little out of proportion but I think Ovi's really connected with Oatsy. He's got a coach now that I think obviously Adam brings a world of knowledge to the table and Ovi really respects him. He's a Hall of Famer, he's one of the most cerebral coaches or players that I ever played with, but now he translates that to the coaching world and I think Ovi has really learned a lot."

If anyone thinks the spotlight will shine any less harshly on Ovechkin in the coming season, they are sadly mistaken. In fact, it's not a stretch to suggest Ovechkin will face scrutiny in the coming months unlike anything he has faced since bursting on the scene in 2005-06, when he edged Crosby for rookie of the year honors.

The Olympics will be held for the first time in his career in Ovechkin's home country, and the pressure on the men's hockey team to deliver a gold medal at home will be immense. Hockey Hall of Famer Igor Larionov, one of the most important figures in Russian hockey, said the moment that Canada bested Russia in the quarterfinals of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, the Russian people began to focus on the Sochi Games.

The pressure on the Russians to win will be every bit as intense as it was for the Canadians to win in Vancouver, and before that for the Americans to win in Salt Lake City in '02, when they lost in the gold medal game to Canada. Perhaps it will be even greater.

Alex Ovechkin
As his production fell off in recent seasons, Ovechkin learned to shrug off criticism.
"It's a big thing," Larionov said. "Hockey is the national pride."

While Larionov would not put the onus squarely on Ovechkin's shoulders -- he will share the burden of expectation with stars such as Malkin, Datsyuk and Kovalchuk -- Larionov is expecting Ovechkin will rise to the challenge.

"Ovi, he's going to play his best," Larionov suggested.

Larionov does not necessarily buy the argument that Ovechkin is an easier target for criticism because he's not a North American, but rather that such commentary comes with the territory. If you're a prominent player, you have to be consistent or people will ask questions, Larionov said. But, he agrees with Kolzig that Ovechkin, who is engaged to tennis player Maria Kirilenko, appears to have changed his priorities and the Hart Trophy is a reflection of that.

"I was happy for him," Larionov said. "He seems to have finally realized that hockey is his profession, not a hobby."

Ovechkin traveled to Greece on the eve of the NHL regular season to be the first Russian to run with the Olympic torch. Like many of his Russian colleagues we've spoken to leading up to the start of the season, Ovechkin shares the excitement of playing on the world's greatest stage in front of friends and family; a once-in-a-career opportunity.

"It's going to be big for us. For me, for all the Russian peoples, it's going to be very big," Ovechkin said. "Russia's become a hockey country, it was a hockey country but right now it's getting bigger and bigger. You can see it in the KHL stars and all that kind of stuff. Government and president love hockey as well, so all the attention's going to be for hockey, so we have that kind of pressure."

In some ways, it's almost too big to consider.

"To be honest with you, I don't want to think about it because it's still too [far away]," he said. "I know, of course, it's going to be some situation when you're going to be very happy and very excited just to be there, hometown. It's not hometown, it's your home, Russia's your home. Your friends, family, all the people are going to watch you."

There has, of course, been a little intrigue added to the excitement -- what else would you expect in Russia? -- with the shocking "retirement" of Kovalchuk from the New Jersey Devils this offseason. Kovalchuk returned to Russia, where it's expected he will captain the Olympic team. That has led to all kinds of speculation about what other Russians might follow suit. And the growth of the KHL has put Russian players in a very different light in North America.

Ovechkin patiently answers yet another question about Kovalchuk, as though their shared lineage somehow suggests he might follow a similar path at any given moment.

"It's his life. Everybody makes their own choices," Ovechkin said. "I respect his choice. I'm really happy for him. He make decision. Of course it's bad for NHL they lost that kind of player. It is what it is."

Could he see a time when such a decision might be attractive to him?

"Again, I don't want to think about it yet," Ovechkin said. "Because I have a contract right now. I want to play here. Maybe in five years or six years, you never know what's going to happen. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow. But right now, I want to be here and this is it."

What does the upcoming season have in store for Ovechkin? Will he feel the weight of a gold medal being slipped over his neck in late February? Will the Caps finally break through to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1998, or even their first-ever Stanley Cup parade? Or will there be more questions asked of the game's reigning Hart Trophy winner and his place among the game's great players?

Ovechkin still sees a Stanley Cup on the horizon for this team and, in the wake of a season that saw more personal accolades, a Cup remains the signature accomplishment that has yet eluded him.

"We just have to be closer together," Ovechkin said. "Lots of factors have to be on our side. The referees, the goaltending. We have to use our scoring chances, play good defense. All these kinds of situations have to be on one page; it can't be one here, one there, one there, one there. We have to be tighter as a group."

For all of the extraneous elements and all the criticism and wondering about Ovechkin and his team, there is a sense of anticipation at the coming days and months and what they might bring.

"We hope he's great from start to finish and a late finish too," McPhee said. "He's really in a great frame of mind and he's in great shape this year.

"Who wouldn't want to be him right now?"