As the hockey world marvels at the spectacle of Alex Ovechkin scoring his 500th and 501st NHL goals in his 801st NHL game Sunday night at Verizon Center, it’s worth pondering a series of “what ifs” that surrounded his first overall selection by the Capitals in the 2004 NHL draft.
What if … the Capitals, who had a 14.2 percent chance of moving from No. 3 to No. 1 in the 2004 NHL draft lottery, didn’t have that fickle ping pong ball fall their way?
What if … then-Capitals general manager George McPhee entertained the thought of trading that No. 1 pick to the Chicago Blackhawks, who lost that same lottery and fell from No. 1 to No. 3?
What if … McPhee didn’t stalk the lobby of a hotel hoping to corner the 18-year-old Ovechkin for a private chat?
Here are excerpts from a recent CSNMidatlantic.com interview with McPhee detailing the circumstances that surrounded Ovechkin’s draft selection, his first impressions, and the hockey legend he has become.
On trade inquiries leading up to the 2004 NHL draft:
We told people we would listen just to see what kind of intelligence we could gather. There was only one club, Chicago, a couple weeks before the draft, who were calling to see if they could move up from three to one, but it never really went anywhere. We liked Ovechkin and we felt really lucky. Good fortune sort of shone on the franchise when we won the lottery and went from three to one, so it didn’t make any sense to trade back. There really wasn’t anything substantive to talk about. Chicago kept asking and we kept saying we’re kind of happy where we are. I don’t think it ever really got to an offer from them.
(While the Pittsburgh Penguins selected center Evgeni Malkin with the No. 2 pick overall in 2004, the Blackhawks took defenseman Cam Barker at No. 3. Barker played in 310 NHL games for the Blackhawks, Wild, Oilers and Canucks, recording 21 goals, 75 assists and a minus-29 rating before leaving for the KHL in 2013.)
On his first impressions of Ovechkin as a 17-year-old:
I know (winning the draft lottery) allowed me enough time to watch him in the (2004) World Championships. I had already seen him the year before in Halifax and I remember he stood out in terms of his strength, but more his determination, not unlike today. His team wasn’t very good and I remember the game I was watching (Russia) was losing about 7-2, but every time he stepped on the ice he wanted the puck and you could tell he really wanted to make a difference. And he never, never stopped working. He was something to see in that regard.
On meeting Ovechkin for the first time at the 2004 World Junior Championships:
I was trying to get more intelligence. I wanted to meet with him alone and interview him so that he wasn’t coached or scripted. So I stayed at the hotel where his team was staying so that I could catch him at some point walking through a lobby or in a restaurant and it actually worked out. I was able to do it. I got him alone, we sat and we talked and his English was good enough. He seemed like a really impressive kid. I kept asking people around that team what kind of person he was and I kept hearing that the veteran players really liked him. To me the intangible side is just as important as the ability. You see that over and over and over in this league, that there are guys that are really good players and really good people, too, and those guys are the winners, those guys have success.
On Ovechkin’s first training camp with the Capitals in 2005:
When you make him the first overall pick he’s the player you were hoping to get and he’s the player you wanted and when he comes to training camp, that’s when you’re hoping he’s the player you thought he would be. He was even better that first year in training camp. I remember Olie Kolzig commented after a pickup game. He came off the ice and said, ‘That’s the best hockey player I’ve ever seen.’ I remember a couple months into that season we were playing in Los Angles and I talked to Luc Robitaille a little later. He said that after the first period of the first game they played against each other he thought he was the best player he’d ever seen, and he played a long time with all those great players.
On if Ovechkin has lived up to the hype that surrounded his first overall selection nearly 12 years ago:
He’s absolutely exceeded all expectations. He might be one of the best draft picks in the history of the league. He may very well be the best goal scorer ever. For what he’s accomplished and done for the league and done for Washington, I don’t know of any other player who could have done something like that. He just has that extraordinary personality to go with all the talent. He’s certainly maybe the most entertaining player ever as well. He’s scoring in a league where it’s really hard to score nowadays. You’re watching one of the greatest players ever, in the history of the game.
MORE CAPITALS: How Florida tried to draft Ovechkin a year early