He is a ubiquitous presence here, his smiling, gap-toothed grin plastered all over everything, from Coca-Cola cans to luggage tags to billboards all over town.
These may turn out to be Alexander Ovechkin’s Olympics, if the masses and/or the corporate sponsors have a say. Ovechkin was greeted as a conquering hero Monday, when the full Russian team – NHLers joining their KHL brethren – arrived for practice at the Bolshoi Ice Palace in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games men’s hockey tournament.
Ovechkin was greeted by fans at the airport, mobbed by volunteers in the athletes village and surrounded by reporters in the mixed zone. Other Russian players may be more integral to the final outcome – Pavel Datsyuk is the glue up front, either Sergei Bobrovsky or Semyon Varlamov will have to provide a better brand of goaltending than what the team got four years ago – but Ovechkin is the player who captivates the audiences. He is a brand unto himself, his personality larger than life.
One could convincingly argue no single individual had a greater impact on NHL participation in these Olympics than Ovechkin.
After the NHL took a mid-season break to allow its players to participate in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Ovechkin made a point of telling anyone who would listen he and his fellow Russians expected the same courtesy four years later.
Ovechkin was the first Russian to promise that if the NHL decided not to go to Sochi, he would breach his contract with the Washington Capitals so he could play – and he didn’t care about fines, suspensions or any other sanctions he might face.
Other Russian voices joined Ovechkin’s. Soon, it became clear this wasn’t an empty threat and the NHL faced serious integrity issues if it pressed on with its regular schedule, while all the key Russian players went AWOL, in pursuit of Olympic gold.
Ultimately, it wasn’t a risk the NHL was prepared to take and thus opted in for Sochi as part of the most recent collective agreement. Since there are no South Korean NHLers with any real clout, 2018 in Pyeongchang is very much up in the air.
But for Ovechkin, this event – and the fact NHL players from around the world are here – is nothing short of a personal triumph.
Perhaps that was why he was so gregarious and engaging Monday. There had been some talk Ovechkin was unhappy with how his country had been portrayed in the press in the early days of the 2014 Games (with #SochiProblems a Twitter phenomenon). One pointed editorial cartoon making the rounds at the Games pictured a half-dozen American reporters inspecting toilets, while athletes stood to the side, ignored.
But it was all sweetness and light as Ovechkin steadily worked through the mixed zone. He first answered questions for Russian reporters and then obliged his media-shy national teammate Evgeni Malkin to stop and talk as well. He then went over to the North American side, answered questions until he was called away to do a live television hit, and returned and answered some more.
This was charming Alex, smiling Alex, approachable Alex – clearly adopting the role of ambassador for both his hockey team and his country, after being a largely aloof presence in Vancouver.
“You can’t compare Torino  or Vancouver to Sochi,” Ovechkin said. “Torino was my first Olympic Games. I was 19. Everything was new for me. It was crazy. Vancouver, playing against Canada, was a crazy moment, too.
“Right now, I’m playing for my country at home. This is another crazy moment. I’m pretty sure you can ask any Canadian guy, what’s the biggest moment for them – when they play for the national team, in the Olympic Games.”
The Russian team is under enormous pressure to succeed in the same way Canada was four years ago, something Ovechkin didn’t necessarily see as a negative. While freely acknowledged this will be the biggest tournament of his life, he also insisted: “I like pressure. I like when the people look at me.”
Something they will be doing lots of over the next two weeks.
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