Back in November when the Washington hockey season was still young and held so much promise, the Capitals’ superstar left wing met with reporters in Toronto. The question was asked politely then and it’s been posed with a greater sense of urgency many times since: What’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin?
“Everything’s okay with Alex Ovechkin,” the five-time all-star said. “Yeah.”
There was a follow-up: Is it hard being Alex Ovechkin sometimes?
“Actually, it’s fun,” he said. “It’s great to be Alex Ovechkin.”
What followed in the ensuing three months has been rarely characterized as fun or great — not for Ovechkin, the Capitals or their fans. The Ovechkin who will take the ice for the Capitals’ final 14 regular season games is markedly different from the Ovechkin who won two MVP awards and carried Washington into the postseason four times, reviving the sport in the nation’s capital and inspiring 140 consecutive home sellouts.
He came here as a 19-year-old who spoke little English but was more than fluent in hockey, capturing the imagination of the hockey world and the hearts of Washington. His rise to the top of the NHL was a fast one, and his stumble back to earth a curious one.
Not only are the Capitals teetering on the edge of the playoff race, but the 26-year old Ovechkin is suffering through the worst statistical season of his career. In 2009, he signed the richest contract in NHL history, and he’s slated to earn $9 million this season. He enters the season’s final four weeks tied for 51st in the league in points and tied for 19th in goals. A player who four times topped 100 points in his career and scored 65 goals just four seasons ago is on pace to finish the season with 62 points and 33 goals.
What fans see on the ice these days is a far cry from the player who wowed the hockey establishment not long ago. Interviews with nearly two dozen people around the Capitals organization and around the NHL — some of whom insisted on anonymity so they could speak candidly — reveal a portrait of a puck protagonist seemingly stripped from Russian literature: misunderstood, at times brooding, downcast and withdrawn — yet a player who most believe is still filled with talent, potential and an infectious personality.
The explanations vary and the probing spotlight shifts from the rotating cast of his inner circle to his waning confidence, his work ethic, and strategy adjustments from opposing coaches.
“The game has changed since Alex entered the league, and we are looking for him to be a better all-around player,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in an e-mail. “We want him to adapt his game to be productive within the framework of our team, not necessarily in comparison with others in the NHL.”
The season has been one marked by drama and pitfalls: Ovechkin caught on camera cursing about former coach Bruce Boudreau, the left winger slapped with a third career suspension, a questionable decision to skip the All-Star Game, a dust-up with a teammate at practice and scoreless stretches he never experienced as a young player. But even more, the season came to symbolize pronounced change: Ovechkin was no longer the gap-toothed, carefree superstar. Instead, he takes the ice often visibly pained by everything that hangs above him.
“I don’t think the pressure is affecting his play but it affects his personality. . . . He definitely seems more . . . ” teammate Jeff Halpern paused, “he’s not the happy-go-lucky kid anymore.”
Halpern was the Capitals’ captain in 2005-06, Ovechkin’s rookie season. He rejoined Washington last fall, reuniting with Ovechkin and hoping for a late-career championship. Six years older, Ovechkin was different. Similarly, the Capitals, their rabid fan base and the expectations surrounding the team had changed and evolved.
“His first year, everything was new and exciting. The only people he really knew were the guys on the team,” Halpern said. “He’s older now and, with that, the biggest thing is carrying the weight of the franchise, the playoff successes and failures, and ultimately, how the team does.”
‘Not a disco right now’
Ovechkin is behind a fence now. He’d lived in the same Arlington home since his rookie season, right off the street, visible to any fan who drove by. In January, he purchased a $4.2 million, 11,000-square foot home in McLean. It’s situated in a gated community, a barrier between himself — the guy who was the life of the party — and the rest of the world. Those who know him well say mounting criticism, mostly from hockey observers outside Washington, has affected him.