After scoring his 500th NHL goal Sunday night against Andrew Hammond and the Ottawa Senators, Alex Ovechkin hugged his teammates, applauded his fans and blew kisses. But where was the love for his hockey stick, which he affectionately calls his “weapon?”
Throughout his 11-year NHL career, Ovechkin has had a mercurial relationship with his stick and by extension its manufacturers.
Ovechkin began his Capitals career with a stick manufactured specifically for him by CCM. Six years later, he switched to Bauer in the summer of 2011.
“Obviously, sticks are changing all the time,” Ovechkin said. “The companies try to do new sticks all the time and they give us new models and new curves and you have to get used to it. When I scored 65 (in 2007-08) that was the best stick I ever had.
“When you’re a professional hockey player, when you take a stick, you feel it and you know if it’s a good stick. Whether it’s a brand new stick or an old stick, you know. I have lots of sticks in my basement -- like my 50th goal or 60th goal -- and when you pick it up, you know it’s a perfect shaft and a perfect lie and everything’s good.”
Ovechkin said he was happy with CCM until it began changing his stick following that 65-goal season.
“The next year the manufacturer changed it,” he said. “And then the second year and third year. One year they stop making them and you get pissed because this is your stick. It’s your weapon.”
Frustrated, Ovechkin struck a new equipment deal with Bauer in 2011 and has been with them ever since.
“My skates and helmet and everything was good,” Ovechkin said of his CCM equipment, “but I had a problem with the stick. Money is money, but I have to produce with what I have. I’m pretty happy with Bauer and how they treat me with the skates and the helmet.”
Ovechkin treats his stick the way obsessive baseball players treat their bats. Before every game he can be seen in the hallways shaving, bending and blow-drying his sticks with a hot gun, trying to get just the right bend and torque.
“I actually tried using it and I can’t,” said Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie, who is also a right-handed shooter. “I shouldn’t have even touched it. Everything went way over the net. Like over-the-glass high.”
Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who was in net for Ovechkin’s historic 500th goal as well as the 484th goal that made him the NHL’s all-time leading Russian-born goal scorer, said it’s not just the stick that makes Ovechkin’s shot so hard to stop, but his release.
“His release is not really awkward, but he pulls it back and makes the goalie move,” Grubauer said. “His shot is so accurate and hard that from in close it’s hard to read. Goalies read off the stick and his is especially hard because he pulls it in and snaps it pretty good. And if it’s high it’s going to go in.”
Grubauer used Ovechkin’s overtime winner against the Rangers as an example.
“When he comes down with speed, you don’t know where it’s going,” Grubauer said. “I think (Henrik) Lundqvist thought it was going to go high and all of a sudden he rips it on the ice. The different shots he has are like no other.”
Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, who spent the first nine years of his NHL career trying to defend against Ovechkin, said no one in the NHL possesses the size, speed, strength and accuracy of Ovechkin.
“I know Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara have those great shots, but I’ve never seen anyone shoot the puck like Ovi does,” Orpik said. “You watch him on the power play. Every team knows exactly what’s coming and you can take him away 99 percent of the time and you leave him open that one time and it’s in the net.
“He’s patient, he waits for his opportunities. But the way the puck comes off his stick, I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think there’s another guy in the game that has that combination of skill and physicality he does. The way he’s able to move at 240 pounds is pretty impressive.
“You’re kind of waiting for him to slow down and hit a wall and he just kind of ramps it up as the season goes on. It’s pretty impressive to watch.”
Orpik says what amazes him most about Ovechkin is that his strength is equally distributed.
“It’s not like he’s a huge weight room guy, but when we do our testing his strength is just off the charts,” Orpik said. “He’s obviously just a massive guy.”
Ovechkin says that after three straight seasons of using Bauer’s TotalOne, he’s now adapting to a slightly altered version.
“This year they try to do a different logo and I’m still bothering them about it,” Ovechkin said. “Every time they send me new sticks it’s better and better. The most important thing I tell them is that for the playoffs I have to have the perfect stick because to be honest with you if we’re winning (now) I don’t care if I score or not. But in the playoffs it matters.”