When the Capitals drafted Alex Ovechkin 17 years ago he arrived with all the hope and promise reserved for a prodigy. He will leave with at least one championship, maybe as the greatest goal scorer in NHL history and certainly as an entertainer of the highest order.
With the signing of a new five-year contract worth $47.5 million this week, Ovechkin will have spent – if he stays healthy and sees out the deal through 2026 – over two decades in Washington. For a D.C. sports fan of a certain age, that is mind-blowing.
There was no Mickey Mantle here. Magic Johnson didn’t lead Showtime at Capital Centre. Aaron Rodgers didn’t define a football era. That was for other cities. Stars didn’t exist in Washington. They were imported, often at great cost and embarrassment.
The Washington Football Team’s glory days in the 1980s and early 1990s were defined by anonymity. It won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and the key to its success was … the offensive line. That team played in four Super Bowls in 11 years, but features almost as many coaches and executives in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (two) as players (four).
The District went 34 years without a baseball team, let alone a star player, after the Senators snuck out of town twice (1961, 1971). They’d had four winning seasons since 1933.
The Bullets / Wizards were notorious for selling season-ticket packages off the appearance of other cities’ greats: Johnson and the Lakers, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barley, Isiah Thomas. The NBA’s greatest generation passed with the Bullets / Wizards serving as real-life Washington Generals. They didn’t win a single playoff series between 1980 and 2004.
The Capitals were good enough that they didn’t have to resort to those shenanigans and played in the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, but their brand was also crushing playoff disappointment.
To be fair, D.C. United won four MLS title in its first nine seasons, but that came in a fledgling league with no history in a sport just trying to establish a foothold in the U.S. It was exciting and impressive, but the profile so much lower.
In a brief spasm of desperation in the early 2000s, the Football Team imported future Hall-of-Famers Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders, the Capitals traded for one-time nemesis Jaromir Jagr and the Wizards added Michael Jordan – first as an owner / executive and then as a player. The defining image of that era is Jordan speeding out of then-MCI Center in a Mercedes convertible having been shown the door by then-team owner Abe Pollin. That was Washington sports in a nutshell.
Alex Ovechkin changed all of that. He was the home-grown superstar many Washingtonians had never seen who sold jerseys all over the world and filled arenas across North America. He was the best local athlete since Walter Johnson almost a century earlier and it wasn’t close.
It took some time. The early years were rough with a roster that rivaled an expansion team. But once the Capitals made the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2008, in Ovechkin’s third year, they were off. They held an outdoor practice once at a packed country club in front of a Supreme Court Justice. Ovechkin had his own SportsCenter commercial. They mattered.
What Ovechkin created is a treasure trove of memories from the goal scored sliding on his back in Phoenix to the moment he lifted the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas and partied with his teammates for days back in D.C. to hundreds of moments in between. He ushered in the golden era of Washington sports.
The Capitals won a Stanley Cup and have the NHL’s best regular-season record since 2007 with three Presidents’ Trophies. The Nationals won four NL East titles between 2012 and 2017 and the 2019 World Series. The Mystics won the WNBA championship in 2019.
After Ovechkin was drafted No. 1 overall in 2004, he was soon followed by Ryan Zimmerman a year later. Then came Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer and Juan Soto, John Wall and Bradley Beal, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and John Carlson, Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Williams, Chase Young and, yes, for one electric season, Robert Griffin III.
That level of talent and performance all at one time was unimaginable for previous generations of D.C. sports fans. Ovechkin didn’t bring those players to the city, but he best represents the era that electrified the city.
Backstrom remains with him, of course, at age 33 and under contract with the Caps for four more years. So is Carlson, soon to begin his 13th NHL season.
But Zimmerman, 36, could retire at the end of the year. Scherzer was traded by the Nationals at the trade deadline. Wall is gone, Williams is gone, Harper is gone, RG3 is long gone and Kerrigan plays for the Eagles. Strasburg just had a serious surgery and, at age 33, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever be the same.
Soto and Young, both 22, represent the young stars, but try to imagine either of them still playing at a high level for the local teams in 2035 and you have an idea of what Ovechkin has done.
He’s outlasted most of his contemporaries and three Presidents. He committed to the Caps once in 2008 when he could have taken his talents elsewhere and then did it again this week. Five years seems like a long time. It is not.
Ovechkin’s challenge is to keep the Capitals competitive, make a run at 800 goals and then, maybe, Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record (894). For local fans, the challenge is not to take these next five years for granted. There's been wonderful memories made for 15 years here. There's time for a few more yet before this chapter is closed for good.