SOCHI, Russia – With apologies to Vladimir Putin, these are Alex Ovechkin’s Olympics.
He’s the official ambassador of the Sochi Games. His face adorns Coke machines throughout the Olympic park, a gap-toothed bellow frozen in time. If the Russians don’t win gold, it won’t be Malkin or Datsyuk or Kovalchuk that will shoulder the blame; Ovechkin will, even if he does everything in his vast hockey powers to elevate this nation to its first gold medal since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Putin footed the bill. But it’s Ovechkin’s party.
“The gold only cost $50 billion,” he said, smiling, after the first full Team Russia practice at the Sochi Games on Monday.
Hockey is at the heart of these Games, and not just because Russia’s president is also the puckhead-in-chief. The Olympic flame illuminates the night sky here, but even the pulsating lights on the Bolshoy Arena, where the men’s hockey tournament will take place over the next two weeks, dwarf it.
The Washington Capitals captain is the face of Russian hockey, and has embraced the role, right down to his nation’s flag embedded on the sides of his new skates.
“You can ask any Canadian guy what’s the biggest moment for them when they play on national team, it’s home Olympic Games,” said Ovechkin.
Ovechkin and his fellow NHL players arrived in Sochi on Monday. They entered the Olympic Athletes Village like rock stars: Volunteer workers rushing over, asking for autographs and photographs.
“We appreciate what they do. They ask for signatures, I haven’t seen anybody say no,” said Ovechkin. “I’m pretty sure sooner or later somebody will say, ‘Sorry guys, I have to go.’”
That’s because at some point, the celebratory vibe that’s eased some of the negativity that surrounded the start of the Olympics – hotel horror stories, terror threats, stray dogs and the like – isn’t going to be enough. The Russians are here to do what the Canadians did in Vancouver: Win gold on home ice, and cement their place in their homeland’s sports history.
“The pressure’s going to come,” said Ovechkin. “But for now, we have jet lag. I’m pretty sure you guys have the same thing. We don’t realize what’s going on.”
If Ovechkin needs a primer, allow us:
He has, in the next weeks, the opportunity to accomplish more from a team standpoint than he ever has as a professional hockey player.
Yes, he has world championship gold – twice, in 2008 and in 2012 – and world junior gold in 2003. But he’s never medaled in the Olympics. He’s never played for the Stanley Cup; hell, he’s never played for a conference title with the Washington Capitals.
That, as of now, is the difference between Ovechkin and his contemporaries: Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin … all of these players are champions. Ovechkin is a three-time MVP, but isn’t one. He has the accolades, but not the ring. He has the hardware, but not the medal.
Crosby’s always been his pace-setter, ever since the two entered the League together and Ovechkin won rookie of the year. Crosby won the head-to-head battle in the playoffs. Crosby won the Cup first. Crosby won the gold first, and in the most dramatic way – in overtime, in Vancouver, in a moment that’s every bit as legacy-making as Paul Henderson’s goal against the Russians.
That Ovechkin hasn’t won the Cup in Washington doesn’t fall on him – it’s been the supporting cast or the system of play that’s faltered, year after year.
But the Olympics are different. It’s a six-or-seven-game tournament in which an individual player can make the difference in ways he can’t when 16 wins are required in the NHL postseason.
He’s not a one-man team. But few players can rise to this occasion like Ovechkin can.
But no pressure.
“To be honest with you, we don’t care about it,” said Ovechkin. “We feel we have to [take it] day by day.”
The Ovechkin that stood before the media on Monday was confident, jovial and collected. He looked rested and spoke candidly. This wasn’t necessarily the way it was in Vancouver, where Ovechkin and his teammates were frequently short, sometimes standoffish during the tournament.
But that was four years ago and Ovechkin, now 28, accepts that he’s grown as a person since then.
“Of course it’s age,” he said. “It’s my third Olympic Games. I know what’s going to happen. You have to enjoy your moment, enjoy your time.”
For Ovechkin, the time has come to bring gold to his homeland.