Alex Ovechkin: Part valor, part villain

ARLINGTON, Va. – No one knows it better than Alex Ovechkin(notes) himself. No one feels it more acutely. No one cares about it more.

Five years ago, when Ovechkin broke into the NHL with the Washington Capitals, he had two dreams: to be the greatest player in the world and to win the Stanley Cup. And now, despite all he has accomplished so quickly, he cannot lay claim to the first, because he has not claimed the second.

“You have to win something to say, ‘Yeah, I’m the greatest player in the world,’ ” said Ovechkin on Thursday, sitting in a conference room at the Capitals’ practice rink in suburban Washington.

Asked whom he considers the greatest player in the world, Ovechkin made it clear that by “in the world” he actually means “in history.” He said it probably would be Hall of Famer and two-time Cup champion Mario Lemieux – an intriguing pick, because it is another Pittsburgh Penguin whom many consider to be the best player in hockey today.

Sidney Crosby(notes), of course.

“Personally, for me, he’s one of the best players in the league, in the world,” Ovechkin said. “When people start saying it’s a rivalry, I don’t think it’s a rivalry. We just, I think, enjoy playing against each other.”

Ovechkin can call it what he wants. But Ovi and Sid are to the NHL what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird once were for the NBA, a dynamic duo the marketers can use to sell the game.

HBO is following the Caps and Pens for a reality mini-series tied to their meeting in the Winter Classic, the NHL’s annual outdoor game on New Year’s Day. HBO president Ross Greenburg said focusing the content of a four-show series on only two players would be “moronic.” But he also said the network would look for the most “compelling characters” and there is a reason HBO needed three hours of Ovechkin’s time this week just for a promo. Ovechkin and Crosby are pretty compelling characters.

We can only hope HBO brings the depth of character both deserve and have lacked in the media, each in his own way. Conflict is the essence of drama, and the tendency is to reduce people to the good guys and the bad guys. Crosby easily is cast as the good guy, all buttoned-up and bland. Then there is Ovechkin, with his fashionable T-shirts and stylishly ripped jeans, his unkempt hair and gap-toothed grin, the dark visor on his helmet and yellow laces on his skates.

“He looks more like a villain,” said Capitals teammate Mike Knuble(notes).

When Ovechkin and Crosby entered the NHL together in 2005-06, they were touted as the new hope of the league after the dark days of the ’04-05 lockout. Ovechkin beat out Crosby for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year.

Each has won an Art Ross Trophy as NHL scoring champion, but Ovechkin has the lead in most individual categories: goals (269-183), points (529-506), Hart Trophies as the league's most valuable player (2-1) and Rocket Richard Trophies as the goal-scoring champ (2-1). After voting Crosby the league’s most outstanding player in 2007, the players have chosen Ovechkin each of the past three years.

Crosby, however, holds the team hardware. In 2009, his Penguins beat Ovechkin’s Capitals in their only playoff matchup and went on to win the Cup. Earlier this year, while Ovechkin and the Russians failed to make the medal stand at the Vancouver Olympics, Crosby scored the clinching goal as Canada won gold.

The fashionable opinion became that Crosby was superior – that his teams’ successes made him the better team player – and it didn’t change after both the Pens and Caps suffered seven-game upsets at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs last spring.

“He’s got the gold, and he’s got the Stanley Cup,” Knuble said. “Who doesn’t want all that? Alex wants that, too. He wants that for himself. He wants that for our team. He wants that for Washington, D.C. He’s going to be here a long time, and hopefully it’s not just one. It’s going to be many.”

It’s easy to forget that the Penguins were a little farther ahead in their development than the Capitals were when Crosby and Ovechkin arrived. And just as we must remember Crosby won’t win it all every time, we must realize that although Ovechkin hasn’t won it all, it doesn’t mean he never will.

Ovechkin has won a world junior championship and a world title for Russia. He’s only 25, and his career lows in the NHL are 46 goals and 92 points – totals that would have ranked in the top five last season. He plays for a club that won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s No. 1 team last season by an eight-point margin.

“It’s not easy,” said Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk(notes), who played with Ovechkin for Dynamo Moscow during the lockout and Team Russia in the Olympics. “I know sometimes everybody say he don’t win anything, but he play well. He play same like that, he win soon or later.”

There are other undertones in the Ovi vs. Sid debate. Beyond Pittsburgh-Washington, there is the old Cold War division. Even if they aren’t Penguins fans, Canadians can claim Crosby. But other than Caps fans, who here can claim Ovechkin? Outside of the D.C. area, Ovechkin, as a Russian, is essentially always on the road. Then there is style: Crosby’s private approach vs. Ovechkin’s outgoing attitude.

The thing is, it takes nothing away from one to appreciate the other.

“You know what I like about him?” said Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock – Crosby’s Team Canada coach – of Ovechkin. “He’s authentic, he’s real and he loves hockey – and he plays it hard.”

Babcock drew out the “arr” sound as if he were a pirate.

“And then he’s a great kid after the game,” Babcock said. “He’s a great ambassador for our game. What can you ask more from a guy?”

Ovechkin loves night clubs and fast cars. His need for speed on the road and on the ice is so great – peeling out of the parking lot, smacking opposing players, slamming into the glass after goals – even Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has asked him to slow down a little bit, just for his own safety.

“I can do it,” said Ovechkin with a smile, “but it’s not going to be me.”

Just don’t get the wrong idea.

“I think it gets distorted when people think he’s just a happy-go-lucky party guy that just comes to the rink and plays,” said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. “He’s like every other young man that’s lucky to be in the position he is, but at the same time, you don’t hear stories about him running around till 4 every morning. He’s such a public figure, somebody would blog it somewhere.”

Ovechkin still lives with his parents. His mother cleans the house and cooks for him. His favorite meal?

“Everything,” said Ovechkin, whose appetite is voracious.

Why would a 25-year-old superstar who loves night clubs and fast cars still live with his parents? He loves his family (“Every day I wake up, it’s a good day to be around them”), it keeps him grounded (“Don’t get too high, because if you go high, you can go down right away”) and it frees him to focus (“They give me everything I need, and I just have to play hockey and show what I can do”).

Boudreau stresses that Ovechkin takes his craft seriously, and teammates marvel at Ovechkin’s competitiveness. There was the night three years ago, when he suffered a broken nose at Montreal and still scored four goals, including the overtime winner. There was the night two years ago, when he had 28 stitches holding together a gash in his leg, that he scored a hat trick against the Ottawa Senators and then needed to be sewed back up again.

“I don’t think you would see that out of a normal player – and maybe not most superstars,” said Caps center Brooks Laich(notes). “People can talk all they want about him. If they think he’s a one-man show or whatever, they don’t know the man. … One thing you guys aren’t fortunate enough to see that we see behind the scenes is how bad he wants to win.”

“You can speak negatively,” Knuble said. “You can say whatever you want. ‘He’s great, but …’ But I don’t care if you like him or not. You’ve got to respect what he gives you every night.”

After the Olympics, Ovechkin said, “it was a pretty hard time for me.” After the playoffs, it was even worse. He tried to get away from hockey but couldn’t.

“Of course, my friends asking me all the time, ‘Hey, why you lost it? Why you lost it?’ ” Ovechkin said. “But still, they understand I’m pretty tired to hear, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ I just say, ‘OK, let’s talk about some different stuff and do some different things.’ ”

Ovechkin won’t even talk to friends who have won the Cup about what it’s like.

“I start to get a little bit jealous,” Ovechkin said. “I think it’s a good jealous, because you still have a chance to win. But time moves on, and every time when you lose it, you think you’re never going to win it. I want to win it right away.”

Ovechkin returned to Washington to start a season as the Capitals’ captain for the first time. Defenseman Mike Green(notes) suggested a team dinner. So Ovechkin took everyone out for sushi – not just the core guys, but all the players in training camp – and picked up the tab himself. He didn’t look like a villain that day.

“He understands we’re a team and it’s beyond just him and Sidney,” Green said. “Yeah, people are right. We haven’t won anything yet. There’s no need to make conclusions about us or Alex, but the thing is, he cares so much and he wants to win so bad, and it’s not like it’s a lack of that. It’s just a matter of us going out and doing it now, and then I guess we’ll be the good guys. You never know.”

Maybe then Alex Ovechkin will be the greatest player in the world.

“I just want to continue what I’m doing,” Ovechkin said. “I know this organization and this group of guys can win it. We’re going to do everything we have to do to win the Cup.”