It's Fashion Week in New York and Alex Ovechkin is doing his part. Here he is, days before the start of NHL training camps, making an appearance in the Big Apple on behalf of the league's rights holders. Ovechkin is dressed in blue pinstripes, on his way to the Vanity Fair party and making all the right noises about what lies ahead for his Washington Capitals, the President's Trophy defending champions which, with $10, gets you a double cap but not much else at the posh Hudson hotel in downtown Manhattan.
Ovechkin didn't win the NHL scoring title last year and couldn't get the Capitals out of the first round, which in the big picture, is what Washington is paying him $124-million over 13 years to do. In a 30-team NHL, championships are hard to come by, something that Ovechkin is acutely aware of, entering his sixth season.
When he arrived, the Capitals were an absolute work in progress, but turned the corner a couple years back and, in an age of parity, finished an impressive eight points clear of the second-best team, the San Jose Sharks.
That it didn't carry over into the playoffs was in large part the result of Jaroslav Halak's otherworldly goaltending in an opening-round upset loss to the Montreal Canadiens. So now, they go back to the drawing board in Washington, with Ovechkin and fellow centre Nicklas Backstrom signed to long-term contracts, Alex Semin on a short one-year string; and perennial Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green still trying to translate regular-season success into high-quality playoff hockey.
Ovechkin has the capacity to be a lightning rod, not such a bad thing for a league intent on making its stars go viral on the Internet. Ovechkin has the ability to do that, because he speaks mostly in quips, short little sound bites that are perfect for TV - the longer analysis left to others including coach Bruce Boudreau, who is nicknamed Gabby for a reason. Russian-born stars just don't have the same broad cachet as American-born ones, although if anyone can change that dynamic, it is Ovechkin - with his reckless on-ice style and approachable off-ice manners.
Here, he is answering questions about everything from Olympic participation to blindside head shots to the Capitals' chances of doing a little more damage in the post-season.
It was at this event a year ago that Ovechkin announced he would breach his NHL contract in order to play in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. He hasn't changed his tune on that, but took a far more conciliatory stance, noting that the next Olympics are almost four years away and there is still time to come to a negotiated solution. The only time Ovechkin let a hint of frustration show was when asked if Olympic participation should be part of the 2012 labour negotiations.
Ovechkin suggested - mistakenly - that it shouldn't have to come to that, given that Turin (2006) and Vancouver (2010) were not part of the last collective agreement. That isn't exactly correct. The NHL actually amended its CBA on the fly back in 1997 to accommodate its Olympic participation, which was well before Ovechkin landed in the league and may explain his unfamiliarity with the sequence of events that started this discussion in the first place.
Many believe that commissioner Gary Bettman's unwillingness to commit now is simply smart negotiating - and that eventually, the NHL will show up in Sochi for the next Games, if only to prevent a showdown with its Russian stars.
"I feel the same way [as he did a year ago]" Ovechkin said, "but it's four years until Sochi. Let's wait and let's don't think about it right now. You never know what's going to happen. Right now, they say one thing. After four years, [maybe]they're going to say different thing. Let's just wait and see."
Fair enough. Ovechkin has been around long enough that he's learning to use all the key hockey clichés. The Caps, according to their captain, will be working harder this year, and trying to play better defence without undermining their go-for-broke offensive style, which is what turned Washington into that most unlikely of hockey towns.
"When you lose, you have to forget the bad things and remember the good things," Ovechkin pronounced. "When you lose, it's always bad, but that's life. This year, I hope we're going to play better playoff hockey.
"We have to realize it's time to move forward."
It was a sentiment that Green, the perennial Norris Trophy candidate, echoed. Green is more familiar with the value that's placed on the Stanley Cup pursuit at the expense of all else, so he knows that October to April represents mostly a dress rehearsal for what happens next.
"We're just going to have to deal with a little more criticism and pressure, but it's nothing that we can't handle," Green said. "We need to be consistent in the season and be prepared for the playoffs, and we will be - this year."Report Typo/Error