Early in his second NHL season, back in the fall of 2006, the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin had quite a night against the Colorado Avalanche. He scored his fifth goal of the year; delivered a body check so crushing that it shattered the glass above the boards and required a five-minute pause in action for repairs; and had to be helped off the ice after he was struck in the foot by an Avalanche shot in the game’s closing seconds. The next day, reporters gathered at a Capitals practice to assess whether there was any lasting injury to the team’s young star. “I’m OK,” Ovechkin assured them in still-improving English. “Russian machine never breaks.”
It was an extremely Ovi sequence of events: a combination of scoreboard skill, intimidating physicality, surprising durability, and cheeky nationalist pride. (His deadpan self-assessment was such a delight that when one dedicated Washington Capitals blog launched three years later, it bore the name Russian Machine Never Breaks in homage.) These attributes, housed inside Ovechkin’s confident, stocky, 6-foot-3 frame, were what had so attracted NHL teams to the then-teenage Russian in the first place.
In 2004, the Washington Capitals selected Ovechkin with the top pick in the NHL draft; a year before that, the Florida Panthers had, in a sense, attempted to move heaven and earth to get him. Ovechkin’s late-September birthday fell two days beyond the 2003 draft eligibility cutoff, but the Panthers pointed to the known discrepancies between the Gregorian calendar and the observed astronomical rotation of the Earth around the sun to argue that, if you adjusted for the four leap years Ovechkin had lived through, he should mathematically be fair game for them to draft. This line of celestial inquiry was unsuccessful for Florida in four different rounds of the draft, however, and Ovechkin went on to be a star in Washington, D.C., the following season instead.
Now, in his 13th year in the NHL, Ovechkin shines as brightly as ever. His career is cluttered with trophies ranging from three MVP awards to six goal-scoring titles to increasingly long-ago Rookie of the Year honors. On the flip side, it’s also littered with the wreckage of — Caps fans, avert your eyes — seven different Game 7 playoff losses. Ovechkin has consistently brought an outsized personality to a sport that, God bless it, isn’t always a safe haven for those with spirited souls. (In 2009, after Ovechkin celebrated his 50th goal of the season by dropping his “hot stick” on the ice and pretending to warm his hands over it, there were many stern, joyless reactions around the league.) And despite playing in the American capital, he’s never for a moment let go of his proud Russian roots, whether he’s getting bottle service in Moscow, or going for runs in the taiga with his trainer Pavel, or holding a lavish, occasionally shirtless wedding reception featuring a performance by members of the Bolshoi Ballet, or palling around with Vladimir Putin himself.
Now, at 32 years old, Ovechkin shares the NHL lead in goals, with 27 in 44 games. In a 5–4 overtime win on January 2 against the Carolina Hurricanes, Ovechkin tied the game in the third period with a shifty skate-to-stick move near the goalmouth and then, in overtime, sped up the right-hand side and faked a shot near the face-off circle before letting rip a real one: a rising, heat-seeking missile that evaded Canes goalie Cam Ward and gave the Metropolitan Division–leading Capitals their 25th win of the season and Ovechkin his 100th career game-winning goal.
As he celebrated that overtime goal against the Hurricanes, with that signature missing-tooth, kid-on-Christmas-morning smile of his, Ovechkin visibly labored to breathe: He’d been on the ice for more than a minute and a half straight during the 3-on-3 overtime, a hockey eternity. “I’m on the bench going, ‘Get off,’” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after the game, “‘because you’re going to explode.’” Ovechkin, in his remarks, was unfazed. “Everybody was tired,” he told the media. “Everybody kind of miss wives. So, go home and enjoy.” He may not have reached Old Man Ovechkin status quite yet, but these discussion topics — marriage, fatigue — were a reminder that there have been a lot of new miles put on the ol’ Russian Machine.
Before a December game against the Las Vegas Golden Knights, Graham McPhee, now a sophomore at Boston College and a fifth-round Oilers draft pick, posted old photos of back when Ovechkin was a young rookie living with his family outside D.C. (Graham’s father, George, is now the general manager of the Knights but was at the time the Capitals’ GM.) When the Capitals played the Vancouver Canucks recently, 22-year-old Nikolay Goldobin told reporters that he got his idol Ovechkin’s autograph at a tournament when Goldobin was 11. After the Arizona Coyotes’ Clayton Keller scored a game-winner over Washington in late December, the team’s Twitter account posted a photo of Keller meeting Ovechkin — whom he also described as his idol — when Ovechkin was 26 and Keller was still a tween.
Last week, during a morning skate, a reporter asked Ovechkin if he felt like he was making a statement this season with his revitalized play. The Capitals winger has reached the part of the hockey life cycle where his statistics can be captured in extremely round numbers: That overtime goal he scored against the Hurricanes was his 100th career game-winner, putting him ninth all time in the NHL and third behind only Jaromir Jagr and Patrick Marleau among active players. He is also on pace this season to reach 600 goals and 1,000 games played, and, perhaps most surprisingly for a guy regarded as a straight-up sniper, he is currently just four assists away from 500. Ovechkin seemed to downplay that line of inquiry, though he allowed that he’d been paying better attention to staying in good shape. “I’m not 25 years old anymore,” he said, before walking that back a bit. “I’m not saying I’m old. You know, I’m 32.”
Ovechkin is still, in many ways, the feisty youngster he’s always been. He’s brash and joyful; he plays with a uniquely bullheaded flair; his dog is a good boy; and he’s apt to deliver amusing moments and malaprops, such as when, the other day, he happily chatted about taking shits instead of taking shots.
Last season, when Ovechkin’s former teammate Brooks Laich shared an earnest, responsible, sponcon-y Instagram post about his elaborate green-juicing habits that ended with “Let me know what you put in your juices!” one of the responses came straight from the @aleksandrovechkinofficial account: “I poot beer and Russian vodka!trust me it’s work,” Ovechkin wrote, adding a few hearts and cry-laughing emoji for emphasis. But more recently on Instagram, he ignited a bit of a firestorm with a post that was less “silly Ovi” and more “serious citizen.” “Today,” he wrote in Russian in the caption of a photo of him and Putin, “I want to announce that I’m creating a public movement called Putin Team. Being a part of such a team is for me pride, it looks like a feeling when you wear the jersey of the Russian National team.”
Личные награды и призы – все это здорово, но в хоккее, как и в любом деле, для победы важнее команда. Только команда способна переломить ход игры, сделать невозможное. В последнее время в западной прессе я встречаю сочетание Putin’s team, то есть команда Путина. И знаете, мне очень понравилось это определение. Лично я готов быть частью такой команды. Я никогда не скрывал своего отношения к нашему Президенту, всегда открыто его поддерживая. Я уверен, что нас, поддерживающих Владимира Путина, много! Так давайте объединимся и покажем всем сильную и сплоченную Россию! Сегодня я хочу объявить о том, что создаю общественное движение под названием Putin Team. Быть частью такой команды – для меня гордость, это похоже на ощущение, когда ты надеваешь майку сборной России, зная, что за тебя болеет вся страна. #putinteam
Between the fraught geopolitical climate surrounding the United States and Russia, the fact that Ovechkin’s team plays about a mile from the White House, and the ongoing doping scandals surrounding Russian Olympic athletes, #PutinTeam was an endeavor that raised eyebrows and grabbed attention. “Among many inconvenient truths to surface out of the mire of our current political discourse,” wrote Sportsnet columnist Jeff Blair, “is the reaffirmation that your favorite athlete might not only fail to share your politics or world-view: he or she might in fact hold ideas that are diametrically opposed to it.” A Washington Post report suggested that Ovechkin had perhaps not “created” the campaign, that it appeared to bear the handprints of a PR firm working on behalf of the Kremlin as part of Putin’s reelection campaign. “I’m not a politic,” Ovechkin told the Post in its story. “I don’t know what’s happening out there. … I don’t want to fight between two countries, because it’s going to be a mess.”
The position Ovechkin found himself in, caught between the country that gives him his paycheck and a great deal of his prestige, and the nationality that gives him his history and identity, wasn’t unique to him: Other Russians, from Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin to the former NHL players Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, have been similarly pulled in multiple directions by their talent and fame. But the older Ovechkin gets, and the more influential he becomes on a global stage, the more these tensions are bound to appear. There’s a parenting adage that grizzled seen-it-all types dealing with teens and 20-somethings love to pass along to the harried moms and dads of colicky babies. “Little kids, little problems,” it goes. “Big kids, big problems.” Once upon a time, a cocky goal celebration seemed like a hockey state of emergency. Now the controversies du jour have become matters of state.
At the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the mug of the Russian Machine was liberally plastered across actual Russian machines. As the captain of the host hockey team and one of the most famous athletes in the country, Ovechkin’s face could be seen on soda dispensers all around the Olympic Village, even after his team made an embarrassing early exit from the tournament. (Ovechkin’s mother, Tatyana Ovechkina, remains the only one in the family to possess Olympic medals: As a basketball standout in the old Soviet era, she won the gold medal twice.) The Sochi Games were part of a weird stretch in Ovechkin’s hockey career that involved occasional benching, outlandish insinuations by enemy media about performance enhancers, and a carousel of coaches with contradictory ideologies about how Ovechkin ought to perform. (“Hey, Ovi. Score,” wrote then–Yahoo columnist Nick Cotsonika during the 2013 playoffs, imitating the whiplash-y environment surrounding Ovechkin. “No, wait, sacrifice. Block shots. No, wait, don’t. You’ll get hurt. Hey, Ovi. Where did your joy go?”)
After Sochi, however, Ovechkin finished three straight seasons with 50-plus goals. Last year, when he netted “just” 33, a total that so many NHL players would envy, it was his lowest scoring production since the lockout-shortened half season in 2013, and it raised the question of whether his punishing style of play might not be aging well. But it was also a case of particularly high expectations: Not only was he still tied for 13th most in the NHL, his 17 power-play goals were, for the fifth season in a row, the league’s best, and his 36 assists were the most he’d contributed since 2010–11.
This year, even as Ovechkin’s hair has been turning increasingly gray, presenting quite the juxtaposition with that childlike missing tooth, he’s been looking like a kid out there; his goal-scoring is back to a point where roughly one in every five Capitals goals comes off his stick, the highest percentage in the league. He arrived at training camp looking far more svelte than usual — though he may have lost some of that weight on the dance floor at the Barvikha Luxury Village just outside of Moscow, where this summer Ovechkin got married to the Russian model Nastya Shubskaya.
The event was, like Ovechkin himself, both a grown-up affair and a youthful, wild time. It included a mirrored floor; what had to have been thousands upon thousands of flowers; cannons shooting glitter into the air as “Play That Funky Music” rang out; a first dance set to Bryan Adams; a Bolshoi Ballet performance; shirtless dancing; and the presence of Russian celebrities ranging from Ovechkin’s NHL teammates and opponents to musician Joseph Kobzon to Roman Rotenberg, the national hockey federation executive and business scion who was added to the USA’s sanctions list in 2015. Putin, though invited, was unable to attend; he sent an ornamental tea set in his stead.
In the second game of this season, Ovechkin scored four goals against Montreal. “Alex took it to heart that he’s got to keep evolving,” Trotz told the media after that game. “It’s tougher when you’re older. You’ve got to work out harder.” Over the summer, when Trotz was in Russia to visit his son Tyson, who is a teacher overseas, he stopped by to see Ovechkin and give him a variation on that message. Their conversation paid off: This season, Ovechkin seems to have adjusted his boisterous game in some ways, such as greatly reducing the number of crushing hits he throws in a game. Perhaps he now realizes that even if Russian machines never break, they can always use some thoughtful upkeep. In November, after a puck to the face left him dripping blood on the ice, a reporter asked if maybe the Russian machine had leaked a little. “Changing the oil,” Ovechkin said, laughing. “I’m fine.”