WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin still has a ways to go to catch Wayne Gretzky's NHL goal-scoring record.
For now, he did the next best thing. The United States Hockey Hall of Fame presented Ovechkin with its Wayne Gretzky International Award at its annual induction ceremony on Thursday night at the Marriott Marquis in Washington.
The award goes to an international individual who has made major contributions to the growth and advancement of hockey in the United States. It is hard to argue with the choice of Ovechkin, whose singular popularity fueled the explosive growth of youth hockey in the D.C. area since he arrived in the NHL in 2005 at age 20.
Ovechkin was not able to attend the ceremony on Thursday. The Capitals left a day early for their game in Tampa Bay on Saturday night. It is their annual dads and mentors road trip. But Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was at the dinner to accept the award on Ovechkin's behalf.
"From Day 1 Alex fell in love with our fans and this community and has said this is his second home," Leonsis said. "I don't think there's any doubt that he really helped to establish this community as a hockey community. It's been called The Ovechkin Effect – all the young people that are growing up and have lived through this era and they are hockey fans for life right now."
ESPN's Steve Levy hosted the awards dinner. Former NHL stars Tim Thomas and Brian Gionta were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame along with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, U.S women's Olympian Krissy Wendell and Neal Henderson, co-founder of Washington's Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Program, which for 40 years has provided access to hockey for underprivileged kids throughout the area.
Dr. Jack Blatherwick, a longtime college and pro hockey trainer who helped develop hundreds of hockey players during his career and worked closely with the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team, was given the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.
Ovechkin joined such hockey luminaries as Gretzky, who won the inaugural award in 1999, legendary coach Scotty Bowman, Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Hull and, posthumously in 2008, Anatoly Tarasov, who is considered the father of Russian hockey for starting the Soviet Union's ice hockey program from scratch after World War II and building it into an international powerhouse.
Ovechkin couldn't be at the dinner in person, but he did thank the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame for the award by video.
"It's a huge honor for me to get this award," Ovechkin said. "Wayne Gretzky is probably the best player in NHL history and hockey history. This award goes not for me. It goes to the whole Washington Capitals organization and how they support hockey and how they grow hockey in this area is tremendous."
Ovechkin quickly became the face of the Capitals with his brash, exciting style of play and his relentless goal scoring. He's up to 679 now – still a long way from Gretzky's 894, but closing in on 11th all-time at age 34. He has a good chance at becoming just the eighth NHL player to reach 700 goals by the end of the current season.
Ovechkin adds to his on-ice work by representing the Capitals all across the D.C. community whether working with special-needs kids or visiting sick children at local hospitals. The cherry on top, according to Leonsis, was the Capitals finally winning the Stanley Cup in 2018. Ovechkin would eventually take the Cup to Georgetown Cancer Center and to visit Neal Henderson's kids at Fort Dupont.
"We've just established the Capitals through Alex's leadership and really historical greatness," Leonsis said. "As a team and a hockey community, it's really built to last…And since Alex stepped onto the ice from that very first game [in 2005] and drilled that [Columbus Blue Jackets] player into the glass until [Tuesday] night, it's just been this constant build. We hope he plays for a long, long time and continues to be here. But his place in history is cemented."
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