Ten years ago tonight, Alex Ovechkin rumbled his way into the Verizon Center, and by extension the hearts of a new generation of Capitals fans, when he scored a pair of goals and body slammed unsuspecting opponents in his NHL debut, a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Four hundred and seventy-five goals later, the Caps’ 30-year-old captain is still bringing fans out of their seats while silencing critics who wondered how long he could sustain his racing-of-the-bulls style.
Former Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt recalls the hype that surrounded Ovechkin when he entered the NHL following the 2004-05 lockout.
“At the time I know a lot of Russian guys were stereotyped for their (lack of) work ethic and when I met Ovi I saw a really strong guy with a great work ethic,” said Witt, who is now raising Himalayan yaks on a 100-acre farm in Montana.
“Maybe it was because it was his Dad (Mikhail, a professional soccer player) was a really good athlete and his Mom (basketball player) was in the Olympics and they kept him very grounded. You just saw this natural athleticism he had and his pure power. He liked the physical play, he liked scoring goals and he was so energetic.
“We knew he was going to be something special at training camp that year. It was an exciting time because you knew he was the real deal at such an early age.”
Ovechkin turned 20 just before the start of that 2005 training camp, but former Capitals captain Jeff Halpern was not convinced he was meeting a future Hall of Famer when he introduced himself to Ovechkin that summer.
“The first day I met him he looked like the Incredible Hulk, in a bad way,” Halpern recalled. “He had jean shorts that were like Daisy Duke specials, and sandals, and his T-shirt was waaaay too tight on him. He looked like a mess. I was like, 'geez.' Kind of like a Hanson brothers reaction.”
On the ice, Halpern had similar reservations about the Caps’ new franchise player.
“He didn’t skate well. We did some drills and I thought, ‘Man, this guy’s a mess when he skates.' I guess I didn’t notice how powerful his stride was.”
Halpern said he recalls the Capitals holding Ovechkin out of several preseason games that September but recalls one game in which Ovechkin scored a goal against the Flyers, skated past the Philadelphia bench, and winked.
“I was like, ‘You just don’t do that,’” Halpern said.
Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins superstar-in-waiting Sidney Crosby came into the NHL in 2005 with equal fanfare, each charged with reviving disgruntled fan bases and a league that had just gone through a nasty labor dispute.
“They were different types of players,” recalled former NHL defenseman Luke Richardson, who was on the ice for the Columbus Blue Jackets the night Ovechkin played his first game with the Capitals. “It was kind of like (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mario) Lemieux. They were both dominant, but they were very different players because of Lemieux’s physical attributes.
“But looking back, it was very rare. It was almost like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. They almost fed off each other to be better.”
On Oct. 5, 2005, Crosby made his NHL debut, recording one assist and three shots in a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Ovechkin arrived with a much bigger bang.
“We didn’t really know what to expect with the team that we had and him,” Halpern recalled. “But that first shift of the game, when he ran that kid into the end boards and they had to fix the glass and the kid had to peel himself off the ice -- even that hit wasn’t normal. It kind of woke up everyone. It woke myself up for sure.”
That “kid” steamrolled by Ovechkin was actually 29-year-old Czech defenseman Radoslav Suchy and, to this day, Caps play-by-play announcer Joe Beninati says he he’ll never forget the force with which Ovechkin slammed the 6-foot-2, 204-pound defenseman.
Neither will Richardson.
“When he laid out one of our defensemen behind the net, we all looked at each other like, ‘Oh, man,’” Richardson recalled.
The Blue Jackets probably uttered those same words 7:21 into the second period when Ovechkin scored his first of two goals, launching a pass from Dainius Zubrus past Columbus goaltender Pascale Leclaire on his patented one-timer from the high slot.
“We addressed it before the game,” Richardson said. “We said you can’t give him an inch and he still got open for two goals. I guarantee you teams are still saying that before they face the Capitals today and he’s still finding ways to get open.
“It’s unbelievable, really, with the way the game is played today and the attention teams give him, that he can still score 50 goals.”
Ovechkin went on to score 52 goals that rookie season and his 106 points were four more than Crosby, who finished second behind Ovechkin in Rookie of the Year voting.
Since then Ovechkin has won three Hart Trophies as league MVP, five Rocket Richard Trophies as the NHL’s leading goal scorer and one Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leader in points. Crosby has won two Hart Trophies, two Art Ross Trophies, one Rocket Richard Trophy and one Stanley Cup.
Both players faced their share of challenges in recent seasons, with Crosby missing parts of two seasons because of concussions and Ovechkin seeing his goal totals dip into the 30s from 2010-12 and his plus-minus plummet to a career-worst minus-35 in 2013-14.
But while Crosby became a sympathetic figure, Ovechkin became a lightning rod for criticism.
“I think that’s sports in general,” Witt said. “When a high profile player isn’t having a good year everyone takes pot shots at him. He knows that and he’s had to learn to deal with it the best way he can and silent the naysayers when he has a good night.
“Last year he worked on his defensive play and it showed a lot. I know he got a lot of criticism about his plus-minus and that he didn’t care. At the end of the day, if you know Ovi personally, he cares a lot. And now that he’s gotten older he wants to achieve that goal of winning the Stanley Cup for the franchise.”
Halpern said he believes Ovechkin uses his critics as a quiet motivation.
“It’s not Ovi’s mission statement in life to get back at those guys,” Halpern said, “but I think he takes a quiet note of things and when he produces and shines the way he so often does, he’s pretty quick to let those people know.”
Kind of like winking at the bench of the Philadelphia Flyers.
But to those who have followed Ovechkin’s career, there is complete agreement that he is playing with a different purpose than he did 10 years ago. And for that reason, many believe he is poised to lead the Capitals somewhere they have never been before.
Now, the question that lies in front of Ovechkin is not whether he can continue to score 50 goals, but whether he can lead the Caps to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
“When you get those singular awards, you’re celebrating them by yourself,” said Richardson, now the head coach of the AHL Binghamton Senators. “I think that’s what drives players (like Ovechkin). They might have a scoring championship but they realize they don’t have the real crown.
“I think Barry Trotz has done a great job with him. Last year you saw that resurgence. He’s really become a leader and I think he’s driven to not only score 50 goals but to lead his team to something greater. He wants to win and that’s the difference.
“I think you saw it with Steve Yzerman. There was a change in his game when Scott Bowman talked to him about maybe not being a 50-goal scorer and a 100-point guy, but being a little better in areas away from the puck and defensively, and all of a sudden he’s the captain of a Stanley Cup winner, blocking shots and playing with a bum knee and grinding it out. Those type of players who elevate their game because they’re leaders and they’re winners. And that’s what you see Ovechkin turning into.”
Halpern agrees, saying that with 475 goals and 895 points in 760 games, Ovechkin already has met the great expectations that escorted him into the NHL 10 years ago tonight.
“Clearly,” Halpern said. “I don’t think anybody could have expected him to produce the amount of goals and had the impact on the ice that he’s had. He’s a generational player. No one has even come close to scoring as consistently as Ovi has over the last 10 years. In that sense, he’s met expectations.
“With that, everybody expects a player like that to bring 10 championships to a city. That’s a big expectation to put on one person. I think he’s exceeded what anybody has expected him to do. I think if you asked him, until they win, maybe it hasn’t been fulfilled. But individually, I don’t think you can ask anything more of a player.”
Asked about the 10-year anniversary of his first NHL game, Ovechkin smiled, then turned serious.
“It’s been 10 years,” he said. “This is my second home. Obviously, I feel really good here. I love this place. But we didn’t do lots of stuff with team success, so we have to do a good job this year.”
It is fulfilling that unfinished business that Witt believes will cement Ovechkin’s place in NHL history.
“I think now in his career he’d rather win a Stanley Cup than get 50 goals,” Witt said. “I think now that he’s older it’s about team leadership and winning a Stanley Cup. That’s what will ingrain him forever.
“We all remember 50-goal scorers, but if he can win a Stanley Cup with the Caps he’ll never be forgotten -- ever.”