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Ovechkin brings smiles to special needs program


Ovechkin brings smiles to special needs program

On his bedroom wall in Glen Arm, Md., 9-year-old Cole Matulonis has a life-size Fathead of Capitals star Alex Ovechkin. When he plays hockey on video games, he is Ovechkin. Always.

So you can imagine the excitement of Matulonis, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 3, when Ovechkin stepped onto the ice Monday at Kettler to skate with members of the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA).

“He winked at me and gave me a high five,” Cole said. “I think he’s just amazing. I always wanted to meet him. He’s really nice and really funny. He was smiling a lot. I never thought I would see him in real life and be this close to him.”

“Ovechkin is Cole’s idol,” said his father, Don Matulonis, a mentor with the Baltimore Saints special needs hockey program that skates out of Reistertown (Md.) Sportsplex. “He loves him. He’s all he talks about. In his mind he’s going to be playing on a line with Ovechkin eventually with the Caps. So this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him. It’s amazing.”

Working with special needs children is nothing new for Ovechkin.


On Saturday night, before the Capitals’ season opener against the Devils, Ovechkin was escorted onto the red carpet by Ann Schaab, an 11-year-old Caps fan with Down syndrome who asked Ovechkin on a date when they were on the ice for a similar event last season. Ovechkin granted Ann’s request by inviting her to dinner and a Caps game last season.

Ann Schaab was back on the ice on Monday as Ovechkin skated with more than 60 special needs players, then presented ASHA with a $29,646.81 check from Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation.

While that money will go a long way in purchasing equipment for special needs players, Capitals coach Barry Trotz said the time Ovechkin gave on Monday will go a lot further to the parents and children who took part in the event.

“I think that’s great,” said Trotz, whose 14-year-old son, Nolan, was born with Down syndrome. “I’m in that fight, if you will. I live that every day. He sees the beauty in kids with special needs. A lot of them don’t have a mean bone in their bodies. They just want to be loved and accepted and I think Ovi recognizes that and he gets a kick out of it. He still has a lot of joy in his game and he’s a big kid inside.”

Trotz and his wife, Kim, have three older children in addition to Nolan and Trotz said he appreciates the challenges parents face with raising special needs children.

“I’m gifted to have a wife that puts in a lot of those hours, because I could not put those hours in,” Trotz said. “You need a special person to do that. If you have more than one or two kids, that special needs child puts a lot of demands on the focus of that child.

“It’s hard for parents because your life changes totally. Your focus on what’s important in raising a child is a lot different. Some kids go to school, they come back, they go to sports, they dress themselves at a certain age. And some don’t. You’re doing that for them until they’re older and maybe all their life. That’s the hard part.

“Personally, when you get an event that Ovi is putting on, when kids get a chance to be out on the ice with their peers and having fun and have a big smile on their face, as a parent that brings a lot of warmth to the heart. So what Ovi’s doing is absolutely fantastic.”

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”


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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.