NBC Sports Washington is rolling out the 20 biggest stories in DMV sports in the past 20 years. Here is No. 9.
Alex Ovechkin was so good as a teenager in Russia that an NHL tried to draft him long before the Capitals won the draft lottery that gave them the best scorer of this generation.
The Rock the Red era doesn’t exist in Washington if somehow the Florida Panthers had been able to convince the NHL that Ovechkin was eligible for the 2003 draft.
He was born on Sept. 17, 1985. The cutoff date for that draft was Sept. 15, 1985. The Panthers tried to argue that because of leap years in 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Ovechkin was actually eligible.
It was a nice try. The NHL told the Panthers it wasn’t happening. Ovechkin would have to wait a while longer. After a miserable 2003-04 season, where the Capitals traded away franchise legend Peter Bondra, star winger Jaromir Jagr and other veteran players, they hoped to get a good player at the top of the draft.
But one afternoon in early April 2004, owner Ted Leonsis was in the middle of a meeting when his assistant burst into the room to interrupt with an important message. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was on the phone. He had some news. The Capitals, who had the NHL’s third-worst record that year, had actually jumped Pittsburgh and Chicago in the draft lottery and would pick first overall. It was a shock, but there was never a question about who they’d take.
A few months later in Raleigh, on June 26, the Capitals made the no-brainer decision to select Ovechkin with the top pick and gave the franchise immediate hope. No one in Washington would see him for another 15 months. The 2004-05 season – what would have been Ovechkin’s first – was delayed and then ultimately canceled because of a lockout. He spent his age-19 season playing in Russia. It took until the fall of 2005 for Ovechkin to arrive in the United States for good.
That’s so long ago now that the Capitals still practiced at Piney Orchard. MedStar Iceplex wasn’t yet built as the team’s headquarters. Ovechkin had a huge hit on the first shift of his first game on Oct. 5, 2005. He knocked one Columbus Blue Jackets player into the board so hard a stanchion had to be replaced. He scored two goals, too.
It still took a while for the Capitals to build on Ovechkin’s selection. Interest in the team spiked, but attendance remained flat as frustration built over two losing seasons. Ovechkin had 52 goals and 54 assists to win rookie of the year in 2005-06 and had 46 goals and 46 assists the next season. But it wasn’t until halfway through his third season, as the Capitals caught fire under interim coach Bruce Boudreau, that Capital One Arena really began to fill for hockey. That was the first year with Ovechkin that the Capitals made the Stanley Cup playoffs. They have missed just one time since.
But it all began that summer night in Raleigh when Ovechkin sat in the stands at PNC Arena and waited stone-faced with his parents Mikhail and Tatiana to see if Washington would take him or make a blockbuster trade instead. Former Capitals general manager George McPhee had plenty of offers and an almost barren roster. He could have gone in another direction. Almost 700 goals later, it’s clear they made the right call.
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