Alex Ovechkin has blown the world of hockey away since his debut in 2005, leading the league in scoring six times, winning MVP three times, and leading the Capitals to the playoffs eight times. The son of soccer star Mikhail Ovechkin and a two-time Olympic medalist in basketball, Tatyana Ovechkina, was the fifth fastest player to 500 goals. During a December practice, I sat down with Ovechkin to talk hockey, his hobbies, and the stick Wayne Gretzky promised him.
What does it mean to you to be the top Russian scorer in NHL history?
It means a lot. It’s a huge honor to be number one, [especially] when I passed names like [Sergei] Federov, [Pavel] Bure, [Alexander] Mogilny, those superstars who played in the league a long time. When you pass them, it means a lot.
I noticed during practice that you stick your tongue out when you shoot. Why do you do that?
I don’t know. It’s just mentally an automatic thing. When my mom played basketball, she did the same thing. I think it’s just genetics.
When you were growing up, who did you most model your game after?
It was hard to see NHL players, but we would read newspapers and hear some news, of course. [Mario] Lemieux, [Wayne] Gretzky, Russian guys Federov, Mogilny, Bure….Of course those guys, you want to be like that. But the most important thing is you want to be yourself. You have your own style, and you just have to keep it.
Did you watch a lot of hockey when you were growing up?
Oh yeah. I was sick about hockey. I had videotapes. When I had a computer, I would show highlights. I was crazy about it.
What has been your most memorable NHL moment?
When I got drafted. My first game. There have been lots of memories and lots of great moments. It has been a huge honor. I got lucky, too. To be number one and to be in this organization. Just to be in the position I am in right now.
Where were you when you heard you were getting drafted?
I was [at the draft] in Carolina in ’04. I was nervous. You never know who is going to be first and who is going to be second. I want to be the first all the time.
What has been your greatest challenge since entering the league?
The challenge was first of all the language, the different culture. Getting used to America and American hockey style. We play against [U.S] juniors in the world championships. But it’s a total different thing.
When it comes to food, what is your favorite Russian dish and your favorite American dish?
I like the borscht, pelmeni, beef stroganoff. I can eat everything. American steaks, hamburgers. All kinds of stuff.
Outside of hockey, what would you say is your biggest hobby?
I like collecting sticks from different players. You play against the great players, and when you are growing up, you play against a person like [Jarome] Iginla, Owen Nolan, Mario Lemieux, [Dominik] Hasek, [Martin] Brodeur….You want to have something to remember it. It’s like history. It’s going to be a memory for my kids and my grandkids. It’s pretty fun.
Will you please tell me about your relationship with Wayne Gretzky? Was it fun meeting him in L.A.? What was it like?
It was a great opportunity. Great experience. He’s a great person. Best player in the world, still. Nobody is going to beat his records, I think. It was a pleasure to meet him with his family.
What do you and your teammates do together off the ice?
Lots of guys like to do crosswords. I like to go to the movies. Obviously on the road, mostly we have a group of guys who like to go to one restaurant and others like to go to another. So we will kind of spread out. But in the playoffs we always stay together as a group. We will go to a restaurant together. We have a family lounge, video games, TV, food, and we just stay there and have fun.
What advice do you have for kids who like hockey?
Work hard. If you have a dream to be a professional hockey player, go for it. You have all opportunities right now. You have great equipment, great training. You have basically everything. If you want to be a professional athlete, work hard, listen to your parents, and listen to your coach.
Photographs by (from top) Patrick McDermott/NHLI/Getty Images; Aidan Kohn-Murphy