SOCHI: Ovechkin comfortable as face of Russia at Games - NBC Sports

SOCHI: Ovechkin comfortable as face of Russia at Games
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February 7, 2014, 4:30 pm

SOCHI, Russia — A hockey goal is four feet tall, six feet wide, and Alexander Ovechkin never takes his eyes off of it. This extreme focus on the goal has made him, perhaps, the greatest pure goal scorer who ever lived. This extreme focus has made him, unquestionably, one of the most criticized and talked about and argued about hockey players on earth.

And this extreme focus makes him groan when asked (for the millionth time) about the pressure of being the very face of the Sochi Olympics.

“Of course there’s pressure,” he says. “It’s your whole country.”

And he stops, and shrugs, and waits for these questions to end so he can look at the goal again.

* * *

Do you want to start with the pressure or the man? For 25 or so years during the Cold War, the Soviet national hockey team was one of world’s great works of art. Its brilliance transcended sports and transcended politics. Between 1964 and 1988, the Soviet team won six of seven Olympic gold medals (everyone in America knows the one they lost) and perhaps more remarkably lost a grand total of three of 48 Olympic hockey games. During the stretch, the Soviets outscored opponents by almost 300 goals.

There were 23 Hockey World Championships held between 1963 and 1990 — the Soviet national team won 18 of them.

And bigger than their dominance was their irrepressible and mesmerizing style of play: Fast, loose, relentless, precise. They were like the Harlem Globetrotters on the ice but they were not going for laughs. They were going for stone-cold amazement. They rushed the ice like wolves, slipped passes that defied geometry, peppered goaltenders with a thunderstorm of shots. Their goal scorers — Sergei Makarov, Aleksandr Maltsev, Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov, on and on — appeared and reappeared in goaltender’s nightmares, both when asleep and awake. The Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak is often called the greatest who ever lived.

The Soviet team symbolized the Soviet Union, not only to the world (the U.S. team beating the Soviets in 1980 is still widely seen as the greatest moment in American sports history) but to the Russian people as well. It was as if, with every 8-1 victory, they were saying: “Look what we can be.”

And then, the wall came down. The Soviet Union broke apart. In 1994, for the first time, the Russian team played alone. Latvia, once a part of the Soviet Union, made the Olympics on its own. And the Russians, stripped bare, did not even medal, getting blasted 4-0 by Finland in the bronze-medal game. It was shocking. It was humiliating. The Russians wore eight stars on their jerseys to reflect the eight Olympic gold medals they had won.

The uniform still has eight stars.

In 1998 in Nagano — led by Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov and other stars — Russia did win a silver medal. A 13-year-old boy in Moscow named Alex Ovechkin watched closely and rooted desperately — it was the first Olympic hockey tournament he watched. Little did he know — little did anyone know — that the silver medal in 1998 was as good as it would get for Russian Olympic hockey for the next 16 years.

That’s the pressure.

* * *

He drives some people crazy. Just the other day, NBC’s Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick went on a fairly long dissertation about what’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin. “There’s no hustle,” said Milbury, a former player, coach and general manager in the NHL and a longtime Ovechkin critic. “There’s no vision.”

“He’s waiting for someone to give him the puck to score goals,” Roenick said later.

“Can you win with a guy who’s the face of your franchise playing like that?” Milbury said a bit after that.

This has been the drumbeat of Ovechkin’s life. Is he selfish? Is he too limited? Can you win with him? Ovechkin’s genius is scoring goals. There are various advanced hockey statistics that suggest nobody has ever been better at scoring. But even the more traditional statistics make the point. Ovechkin has led the NHL in goals three of the past six years. And this year, his 39 goals is so far ahead of the pack that he’s on pace to win the Maurice Richard Trophy (for most goals) by more than 10 goals.

The last person to do that? Alexander Ovechkin in 2007.

Watching him play is a unique and stunning experience — there never seems even a second when Ovechkin is on the ice and not looking to get some sort of shot on goal. He gets the puck and he shoots. It sometimes happens so fast you miss it. Ovechkin has had led the NHL in shots in eight of his nine seasons.

This has led to many condemnations of his defense and his passing and other parts of the game, but the thing is, when you watch Ovechkin play (the cobra-like quickness of his shot, the way he seems to just appear in perfect goal scoring position, the way his shots seem drawn to tiny openings as if the puck is alive) these criticisms seem beside the point. Ernest Hemingway, Ted Williams and Barry Sanders only did one thing too.

“He’s maybe the greatest goal scorer ever,” Milbury conceded right in the middle of his Ovechkin lament.

Somehow, with Ovechkin though, it isn’t enough being such a magnificent goal scorer. That comes back to the drumbeat. Can he lead a team to success? Yes, he has led the Capitals to first place in the Southeast Division five times, but they have never made it past the conference semifinals.

And he has twice been the biggest star on the Russian Olympic team and both times they did not win a medal. The 2010 Olympics were particularly galling — Russia was considered a real threat for gold, but a 7-3 stomping by Canada ended their tournament where they were slumped in sixth place, a new low. Later that year, the Russians lost to the underdog Czech Republic in the final of the Hockey World Championships — one of the Czech goals was sparked when Ovechkin collided with a teammate.

Now he leads the Russian Olympic hockey team in what is probably the most important hockey tournament in the nation’s history. There has never been an Olympic hockey tournament in Russia. Who knows if it will ever happen again?

“You’re the focus of your whole country,” he says. He looks as if he’s going to say something else so I wait. Finally he shrugs. “It’s a lot,” he adds.

RELATED: Nine great facts about Alex Ovechkin

* * *

Ovechkin was born to the Olympics. His mother, Tatyana Ovechkina, was the point guard for the Soviet basketball teams that won Olympic gold in 1976 and 1980. The 1976 team was particularly awe-inspiring — that was the first-ever Olympic women’s basketball tournament, and the Soviet Union beat Canada by 64, Czechoslovakia by 13, Bulgaria by 23, the United States by 35 and Japan by 23. This was the world of dominance Alex was born into.

“For me, the dream as a child was the Olympics,” he says. “Later it was to win the Olympics and win the Stanley Cup, but growing up you don’t know if you are going to play in the NHL. You think about the Olympics and playing for your country.”

Sergei Ovechkin, Alex’s older brother and his idol, introduced him to hockey when he was 4 or 5. Sergei died in a car accident when Alex was 8 — a loss he rarely talks about except to say that it drives him — and that same year he was invited to a Russian hockey school. The Russian training was specific and fierce; Ovechkin described it to Charles McGrath of the New York Times: “You have to have more technique. You have to be like a tiger — you know, you’re hiding and then you come out.”

At the same time, Alex was playing a lot of street hockey in the neighborhood. He will rarely brighten during an interview these days — not with the Olympics here and so much weighing on him — but he does light up a little talking about those games. “Obviously it’s a different feeling,” he says. “You don’t have Zamboni machine out there. You don’t have some smooth surface. You play. It’s not winning and losing. You are playing with your friends. You don’t play professional for money. You are playing for friendship.”

And, man, did he love to score goals. Always. He did not watch NHL games growing up so everything he knew about hockey was Russian hockey. He idolized the great Soviet goal scorers. He invented goal-scoring maneuvers of his own. He developed one of the quickest shots in the game’s history more or less with his own imagination (and tough Russian training). At 16, he was already playing for Dynamo Moscow at the highest level of Russian hockey. At 18, he was the first pick in the NHL Draft — it was said that if he had been eligible (he was too young) he would have been the first pick in either of the previous two drafts.

He played his first NHL game 18 days after he turned 20. He scored two goals.

* * *

What has been amazing about Ovechkin — second only, perhaps, to his goal scoring — is his resiliency. They keep writing him off. He keeps coming back. That’s not really the story in Washington sports lately. Robert Griffin III was the toast of the town last year and one of the biggest stars in the NFL; this year was marked by inconsistency and tension with the coach and injuries.

The Washington Nationals had the best record in baseball in 2012 led by brilliant young stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. This year they both took steps back and the Nationals were a non-factor for pretty much the entire season.

John Wall was the first pick in the NBA Draft and viewed as a Washington Wizards savior; only now, four years into his career, does it look like the Wizards will even make the playoffs.

And Ovechkin — he’s still amazing. How many times did he seem to be fading? How many times were people asking “Why is he slumping” or “Will he ever be the same?” At the beginning of the 2012 season, he seemed utterly done as a great player. He was coming off what was by far his worst season, then the strike happened, then he just looked lost. Stories with headlines like “ 4 early signs that Alex Ovechkin will not return to superstar form” and “Is Alex Ovechkin still a superstar?” popped up everywhere.

And then — he started scoring like crazy again. He scored 24 goals in his last 29 games to win the goal-scoring title again. He was given the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player for the third time. Some of the credit was given to Washington coach Adam Oates for moving Ovechkin to right wing (to take advantage of his shot) and helping him get his head straight. Oates though says he doesn’t deserve any of the credit.

“Alex did it,” Oates says. “He wants to be a great player. That’s what drives him. And so he will do what it takes. He’s one of the greatest goal scorers but he still wants to keep improving, keep learning. He’s hungry. He stays hungry.”

Oates, too, has been reluctant to talk about Ovechkin at the Olympics — he obviously has his own team to worry about — but he does say: “Sure, there will be a lot of pressure on Alex. He’s obviously aware of that. I think he’ll play great. I think he’ll live up to the moment.”

Ovechkin offers no hint on that or on how he feels. When asked how the bigger international ice will affect him, he shrugs. “No difference,” he says. When asked if he prefers the less physical style of international hockey, he shrugs. “To be honest, I don’t care. My style fits both ways,” he says. When asked if he will have time to see other Olympic events, he shrugs. “I will have time,” he says. “But I prefer to stay in my room.”

He will be everywhere at these Games, in spirit as well as in person. His face is on Coca Cola machines and billboards. His photo is on more or less every Olympic magazine cover you see. His mother runs the Russian national women’s basketball program, his Russian fiancé Maria Kirilenko is currently the 24th ranked tennis player in the world, and his story has been written: This time — this time for sure — Alex Ovechkin will lead Russia back to the top of the hockey world.

“It is no secret that we are going to be under a lot of pressure,” he says. “Everybody knows this.”

I remind him: “And you personally.”

He shrugs. “People want Russia to win. Russian people are going to be for Russian players. … I know. I always want Russia to win too.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski