A downtown department store in a major Canadian city is bound to be a madhouse during the holiday shopping season.
But it is nothing compared to a public appearance by Alexander Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals superstar and the worldwide face of hockey.
That much was proved yesterday at the Olympic boutique inside The Bay in downtown Vancouver, as roughly 1,000 people formed a circuitous queue 30 minutes before Ovechkin's late-afternoon arrival. Autograph and picture seekers were forced to buy one of five items - the cheapest costing $89 - yet the line snaked around several displays, and ended outside the boutique, somewhere between clocks and cosmetics.
"Why not?" Ovechkin replied earlier in the day when asked why he would agree to two hours of sign and smile. "It's good stuff for me. People are going to recognize me and shake my hand. It's easy."
And that encapsulates this attention-loving Russian. He is willing to share his joyful journey with fans, regardless of their nationality, in the name of building his sport.
He is also on a crusade to convince the NHL, the National Hockey League Players' Association, and the International Ice Hockey Federation to come to an agreement and allow NHL professionals to play in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Ovechkin believes it's what the fans and players want, and when he touched down in the Olympic city this week - for just his second game in Vancouver - Alex the Olympian was going to spread the good word.
"I'm going to continue to say what I have to say, especially when it's [about] the Olympics in my country," he said. "It's the same for Canada. If someone says to a Canadian player, 'You know what, you can't go play the Olympic Games in your country,' what do you think their reaction is going to be? The same."
Yesterday, when the rock star arrived at The Bay, he was greeted by chants of "Ovie" and some teenagers climbed onto their friends' shoulders to snap photographs.
The 24-year-old came dressed for the part. He wore an Hudson's Bay Co. sweater over his Russian national team jersey, which he swapped with a minor hockey player from North Vancouver. Underneath, he wore a shirt with the Vancouver Olympic Games Organizing Committee logo, with the hat to match.
Earlier in the day, Ovechkin said it was "unfair" that Canada, and not Russia, would stage an Olympics with NHL players. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and team owners have expressed concern over shutting their season down for two weeks to participate in the Games - particularly when they take place on European time - but Ovechkin believes the Olympics are deeper than dollars and cents, and has threatened to go AWOL from the Capitals in 2014.
"Because you represent your country, and you represent your home, your parents, and your family," he said about his connection to the Olympic movement and his refusal to stay silent on the matter. "Nobody can say to me, 'Don't say this or don't say that.' It's a free world and I can say whatever I want."
He arrived at GM Place wearing a Cookie Monster T-shirt, and Washington's practice ahead of tonight's game against the Vancouver Canucks was such a must-see event that even Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault, who normally remains in his office, watched from the stands. Henrik Sedin, the second-leading scorer in the NHL heading into last night's games, said Ovechkin is "by far" the best player in the league, and that it was a shame he wasn't in Vancouver more frequently.
Sedin called him uniquely skilled, while Canucks defenceman Sami Salo said he was envious of Ovechkin's non-stop energy. Goaltender Roberto Luongo said he was "proud" to have kept Ovechkin off the score sheet in seven of their first eight NHL encounters.
"He loves the game and he has fun playing it," goaltender Roberto Luongo added. "There's nothing wrong with that."