The Capitals' five Russian-born players, including Viktor Kozlov,… (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington…)
CORRECTION: The article misspelled the name of the owner of Russia House and incorrectly said he is Latvian. Arturas Vorobjovas is Lithuanian.
In the second floor lounge of Russia House, a Dupont Circle restaurant and bar that is a gathering spot for expatriates and diplomats from Moscow, St. Petersburg and beyond, the ceiling is still stained from the champagne that sprayed on a raucous night a year ago when four Russian-born hockey players celebrated their success in the U.S. capital.
For Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and Alex Ovechkin, leading the Washington Capitals to the playoffs last year was a huge achievement for a franchise mired in mediocrity and obscurity for years. This year, it will take more than that to set off another vodka-fueled celebration.
As the Capitals begin the playoffs tonight against the New York Rangers at Verizon Center, they carry with them the expectations that come from being one of the National Hockey League's most exciting young teams. And whether the Capitals advance far in the postseason will depend to a large degree on the play of Semin, Fedorov, Kozlov and Ovechkin.
That is so not only because Ovechkin could be the seminal player of his generation, and a good bet to be the NHL's most valuable player for the second year a row. In a league in which Canadians hug Americans who embrace Russians who in turn befriend Swedes -- and the Capitals feature everyone in that group, and more -- the Russians form a cohesive group, ribbing each other in Russian while English fills the rest of the locker room.
"It makes huge difference," Ovechkin said recently in his still-slightly-broken-but-hugely-improved English.
That is particularly true in Washington. Unlike some East Coast cities, the District has no neighborhood of Russian immigrants, no equivalent of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach or Miami's Sunny Isles Beach. The Russian community here, such as it is, is scattered, much of it in the suburbs, small pockets of software executives and IT professionals in Gaithersburg, Rockville and across Northern Virginia. The corner store doesn't provide their social glue. The Internet does.
"Everyone lives close to their work," said Marina Davis, a native of Moscow who lives in Silver Spring and works for the International Club of D.C. "We have no one, single neighborhood. It's like we have a virtual community."
So the Russian Capitals -- who, for the playoffs, include backup goalie Simeon Varlamov, a rookie who gives Washington more Russians than any of the NHL's 30 teams -- have not only combined to make the Capitals hugely popular in their home country, they also provide one of the few tangible bonds for Russians here.
"If you have a Russian delegation here, and the Capitals are playing, it's a must," said Evgeny Agoshkov, who heads the Russian Cultural Centre in Northwest Washington. "That's the best place to take them, and they always want to go."
Verizon Center, then, could serve as the best Russian gathering spot in town. The Russian players, essentially immersed in their own little world, all live in Arlington, near the Capitals' Ballston training complex. They occasionally dine together at Morton's steakhouse downtown in the District or at Georgetown's Cafe Milano. Or they head up Connecticut Avenue to Russia House, which serves its vodka -- 107 varieties, including 29 from Russia -- in pint glasses, has seven Russian beers and features a Russian-speaking wait staff.
"So comfortable," Ovechkin said of the place, owned by a Virginian and a Latvian, and it makes sense considering that, on more than one occasion, he has slipped behind one of the bars, pulled out his iPod and plugged it into the stereo, taking over the music, usually a heavy dose of European DJ Tiësto. Semin and Ovechkin even dropped by on New Year's Eve, mixing with Americans and Eastern Europeans alike.
"I think they feel comfortable here," said Arturus Vorobjobas, one of Russia House's owners. "And we've definitely connected with them. They know us. They trust us."
Indeed, Ovechkin called it "an unbelievable place," and it isn't uncommon for the players to hold card games in the small, second-floor bar or bring Russian players from visiting teams there. Ovechkin said he needed such comfort when he arrived in Washington for his rookie year in 2005 after having starred for Dynamo Moscow of the Russian Superleague.
Just 19, he spoke almost no English, and the only teammate with whom he could reliably communicate was veteran Danius Zubrus, who is seven years older and now plays for the New Jersey Devils. The list of tasks with which Zubrus helped Ovechkin was endless. "If I need something to buy," Ovechkin said, "or go somewhere, or make a reservation, or open bank account, he helped."