Monday, September 18, 2006

Alexander the Great

Ashburn, Va. – Standing by the glass, the first thing you notice about professional hockey players when they skate onto the ice is how just how tall, strong and fast they are. Of course, that sense of proportion is magnified a time or two when you spend most of your time on the ice coaching and watching 11 and 12 year-olds, or trying to avoid a trip to the orthopedist when playing against men your own age.

And the first thing you notice about Alexander Ovechkin is just how much better he is than everybody else.

Make no mistake – just to get invited to an NHL training camp means that a player has done close to cartwheels around every single obstacle course, survived a lifetime of 5 a.m. practices, tolerated amateur coaches who often appear a step or two removed from some sort of unlicensed mental health facility or, worse, prison, and been the best player on his team since he was old enough to skate. And while the Washington Capitals are still a ways from challenging the league's best teams, they do have some very good NHL players -- Dainus Zubrus, Brian Pothier, Alexander Semin and, of course, Olie Kolzig -- and a good handful of quality journeymen -- Chris Clark, Brian Sutherby and Matt Pettinger. But Ovechkin is not just better by light years than his teammates -- he is rightly considered one of the five best players in the world.

To watch him skate is like watching a seagull skim the water: you know he's touching the ice, but he moves so quickly and so gracefully that you wonder if his skates even cut the surface. His reflexes are so fast that you literally can't take your eyes off him or you will miss something. So exciting is he to watch that he had fans standing every time he came near the puck, and this was during a controlled scrimmage. Later, when the hitting picked up, Ovechkin collided with newly-acquired enforcer Donald Brashear, considered one of the NHL's toughest tough guys and best fighters, held his ground and got right back in the play. Skating back to the bench, Ovechkin and Brashear tapped each other with their sticks to acknowledge that it was just hockey. Once the season starts, it will be Brashear's job to protect Ovechkin on the ice.

After the morning workouts ended, Ovechkin came out to sign autographs for the 50 or fans who had hung around. He smiled and managed to say something nice in his broken English to everyone who put something in front of him, and reminded one kid who couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 to "play hard and listen to coach." Then, dressed in jeans and a ragged t-shirt, he turned and went back to the dressing room, where he is, by all accounts, amazingly down-to-earth.

Lured by gas a full twenty-five cents below what I would pay back in Bethesda, I pulled over to the Shell station next to the rink. Next to me, a brand new white BMW pulled up and stopped. The driver got out, walked around to the other side of his car, opened the gas cap and began filling up. We exchanged glances, then stared off into space as we waited for our tanks to fill. After we replaced our hoses at the same time, the driver looked at me and said, "You have nice day."

"You, too," I said. I had just gone gallon-to-gallon with Alex Ovechkin and pumped him to a draw. Who knew?


Anonymous said...

Iverson, nice hockey blog. Brashear will do wonders on the Caps. He's more than a goon. G

Anonymous said...

I wish the people of DC knew how lucky they are. They get to watch the heir to the throne, the next (dare I say it) Gretzky...