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No Penguin opponent inspires as much hate as Ovechkin

| Sunday, March 28, 2010

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Enemy prefers to keep this secret.

"There are a lot of stories people have heard about Alex," Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said about his good friend and team captain Alex Ovechkin, who is despised in Pittsburgh for his personal rivalry with Sidney Crosby, love-hate connection to fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin, and knee-on-knee playoff hit on countryman Sergei Gonchar.

In Washington, Ovechkin is beloved because he shows a softer side.

"He always gives money from his pocket to homeless people - every time - when we are going to a restaurant or walking to practice. Did you know that• Nobody tells that story, and I'll show you why. Ask him about it."

Ovechkin is only a couple of weeks removed from his second suspension of the season for an illegal hit, a month from allegedly roughing up a photographer at the Vancouver Olympics.

He has talked about those instances. Mention of his generosity with the homeless, though, caused Ovechkin to roll those blue eyes upward and dismissively shake that head of shaggy dark brown hair.

"He doesn't want to talk about the good stories," Backstrom said, laughing. "Maybe the people in Pittsburgh would like him more if they knew the good stories."

There is little chance of that, even if former Penguin and current Capitals winger Matt Bradley said the parallel to Ovechkin's story in Washington is Mario Lemieux's impact on Pittsburgh in the late 1980s.

"When I was in Pittsburgh (six years ago), it was basically an afterthought what Mario was doing as a player," Bradley said. "He had already done EVERYTHING for that franchise, like, 20 years before as a player. He had already made hockey a big deal in Pittsburgh.

"Alex is doing that here on a daily basis."

The bad guy

In Pittsburgh, Ovechkin is an opposing NHL player who inspires a level of hate previously reserved for Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke and Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky.

"There was a certain amount of jealousy with those guys, and with Ovechkin the fans here just don't like him," longtime Penguins broadcaster Paul Steigerwald said. "I'd say with all three guys, it's their greatness combined with a sort of perceived arrogance."

Ovechkin doesn't mind that particular presumption.

"It won't change," he said. "I won't change. Why change?"

Change might mess with a fantastic formula.

Five years into his career, Ovechkin is chasing a fourth 50-goal season, third consecutive MVP trophy and second scoring title in three years. Since winning top rookie honors, he has established himself as the most decorated individual athlete in the NHL, NFL, NBA or MLB.

Crosby is Ovechkin's only NHL rival in terms of accomplishment and recognition. However, Crosby's landlord is the player whose Ovechkin's career has most paralleled because the league-leading Capitals have built a burgeoning Stanley Cup contender around him, and Washington is abuzz with hockey hysteria.

"The similarity is that Alex has captured the interest of the casual fan, not just the sports fan or hockey fan," Capitals president Dick Patrick said Wednesday before his franchise's record 42nd consecutive regular-season home sellout.

"We've had some great players and great teams, Rod Langway's comes to mind; but we've never seen anything like Alex. He is building his own fan base, and my hope is that like the Penguins did we can solidify that base as Capitals fans to make Washington an established hockey city."

An inside view

Hired as head coach a third of the way through Ovechkin's third season, Bruce Boudreau's first conversation with the hard-shooting left wing he inherited was telling.

"You don't forget when the star of your time introduces himself and says, 'If you get mad at the team, you need to yell at me even if it's not my fault,'" Boudreau said. "He said the players needed to know that 'the coach was in charge, not the star.' "

Ovechkin wanted no part of a discussion about that story or his first interaction with Capitals rookie defenseman John Carlson, who joined the club not long after scoring the winning goal for Team USA at the World Junior tournament.

"He sat down next to me, introduced himself and started asking about the goal — if I really thought it was going in," Carlson said. "He's just such an average guy, which I'm not sure I expected. I wonder if a lot of people know that he takes pride in helping the young guys find their way in the organization.

"It was pretty obvious to me that he feels a responsibility to the Capitals organization, that his job is more than just playing great hockey."

A near miss

Pittsburgh could have been Ovechkin's hockey home.

"Everybody knew going into that year that he was the best player available," former Penguins general manager Craig Patrick said of Ovechkin and the 2003-04 season, which the Penguins finished with the lowest point total.

The Penguins lost a draft lottery to Washington, falling into the second slot, where they drafted Malkin.

"Even though (Malkin's) stock had risen and some of our scouts thought he might end up being better — maybe we fooled ourselves into thinking that a little bit — Washington made it very clear after it won the (entry-draft) lottery that Ovechkin was going to be a Capital," Patrick said.

Added former head scout Greg Malone: "Ovechkin was a legitimate franchise player, the real deal for that job."

One year later, the Penguins won a lottery and the right to draft Crosby, and veteran Capitals winger Mike Knuble believes the hockey gods nailed the matching of the superstar players' personality with respective markets.

"Alex has a particular look, it's very unique, and his personality is that he's going to be himself no matter what people say," Knuble said. "It would be interesting how that might play in some places, but from what I can see in my first year in Washington, that package is what has drawn people in this market to Alex — and to hockey."

Like Mario

The formula for turning Washington into an established hockey town is not complicated, Ovechkin said.

"Hopefully we can with the Stanley Cup," he said. "When people see that, they will be with us forever."

Ovechkin will return to Pittsburgh for perhaps his final game at Mellon Arena on April 6. Crosby is his generational rival, but Ovechkin said he knows "Pittsburgh is Mario's town."

"But I don't feel pressure in Washington to make it like that for me," he said. "Why do you have to feel pressure• Some people feel it. Not me.

"I feel pretty good about everything that's happening in Washington. That's no secret."


After three days in D.C., beat reporter Rob Rossi puts Alex Ovechkin's impact on the Capitals and the city into perspective:

16.6 Percent in attendance spike for final 17 regular-season games at Verizon Center after Ovechkin's goal scored while rolling along the ice at Phoenix on Jan. 16, 2006.

18,277 Average attendance at Verizon Center this season, which represents a 31.5 percent increase since his rookie season five years ago.

42 Consecutive regular-season home sellouts by the Capitals, a record in the 10-year history at Verizon Center. The previous-best streak was eight.

2,000 -- Approximate number of fans on a season-ticket waiting list created by the team for the first time last summer.

"Alex is out there, a peoples' guy. He's not hiding behind gated communities. He's not a recluse," Capitals winger Mike Knuble said. "He's out living in the community, and people like that. You can literally walk up and shake his hand, and that has won people over who otherwise might not have paid attention to the Capitals or felt like they could get behind a Washington team."


Ovechkin was the lone D.C.-area professional athlete invited by President Barack Obama to Obama's first State Dinner in November 2009. He was also requested as a special guest by several media outlets for the White House Correspondent Association dinner in May 2009. NHL duties prevented him from attending both dinners.

Before the Olympics, "Meet the Press" host David Gregory asked Vice President Joe Biden who his children should root for in the men's hockey tournament at the Vancouver Olympics. Gregory's sons had planned to root for Team Russia because they are Ovechkin fans.

"He's the right guy for the market in so many ways," Capitals general manager George McPhee said.

"He's got such a charisma, and it carries over off the ice. We knew he was going to be an exceptional player, but we had no idea he'd have this kind of impact. Hockey players aren't asked to go to the (WHCA) dinner. They just have never been that visible in this town before Alex. I'm not sure that I ever expected it to be at this level."


After becoming the first D.C. professional athlete to win a major sports MVP in 25 years, Ovechkin was presented with a key to the city by Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty. Upon accepting, Ovechkin declared speeding tickets would be made illegal.

GQ Magazine selected him as the No. 48 most powerful person in Washington in October 2009. Ovechkin was the lone athlete on the list.

Long considered Washington's most treasured professional sports team, the NFL's Redskins invited adopted-fan Ovechkin to kick field goals before a nationally televised football game last season. Ovechkin obliged, and NBC broadcaster Al Michaels noted the packs of fans at FedEx Field wearing Ovechkin jerseys.

"He's a superstar of the league, but in Washington he has become more of an icon than anything I expected maybe more than anything he expected," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "People have watched him trying to learn the (English) language. They see him at local restaurants eating dinner with his parents. It's like he has become the peoples' guy; they've adopted him as one of their own. From what I understand, that hasn't happened with another hockey player here, and Alex definitely has grown comfortable with being one of them. That's what makes him such a big deal."

Sources: Washington Capitals media relations; Associated Press reports; NBC Universal

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