SOCHI, RUSSIA – A few hours after Alex Ovechkin awoke on the NHL’s chartered luxury jet Monday, he was among the first Russians on the Olympic ice for practice.
Ovechkin has been waiting several years for the chance to play for gold at his home Olympics, and Russia’s most fearsome scorer couldn’t wait another minute to get started.
“Of course it’s a huge honor for me to represent my country,” said Ovechkin, who wore custom skates featuring the Russian flag at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. “I’m pretty sure every athlete wants to represent his country at the Olympic games.”
But almost no Winter Olympics athletes are as popular as Ovechkin, whose tooth-deficient grin is plastered on advertisements throughout Sochi. The Washington Capitals superstar publicly stumped for Sochi’s Olympic bid in 2007, and he was the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch after it was lit in Greece last September.
He had long declared he would play in Sochi even if the NHL didn’t interrupt its schedule for the games — but when he finally arrived in Sochi, Ovechkin proved even he isn’t immune to jetlag. He thought about stealing a nap before practice, but linemate Alexander Semin prodded him into the dressing room.
Ovechkin could be excused for wanting a quick rest from all the weight on his shoulders in Sochi. Yet the NHL’s top goal-scorer and reigning MVP says he’s more relaxed than at his first two Olympic appearances in Turin and Vancouver, even under the yoke of Russian hockey’s 22-year gold medal drought.
“The pressure is going to come 100 percent, but right now we just have a jetlag,” Ovechkin said. “Of course we have aims, but (right now) we don’t feel any responsibility. Everything starts on the 12th. Then we might start to feel the pressure.”
His sense of humor also remains intact. When asked what a hockey gold medal would mean to Russia, Ovechkin replied with a smile: “Mean gold only cost $50 billion, probably.”
Ovechkin has grown into his role as one of Russia’s leaders during his Olympic career, which he began as a wide-eyed 19-year-old in Turin. He infamously refused to speak to reporters in Vancouver while Russia crashed out in the quarterfinals.
At the sparkling Bolshoy arena, he enthusiastically discussed the games in Russian and English for a half-hour — and even prodded fellow NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin into a few additional Russian interviews.
“Of course it’s age,” Ovechkin said of his evolving perspective. “And of course it’s a situation when you’re not young. It’s my third Olympic games, and I know exactly what could happen, what’s going to happen. The situation is simple. You just have to enjoy your moment, enjoy your time. As soon as you’re going to think about different stuff, you’re going to be stuck in something bad.”
The Russians realize their fans won’t be satisfied by anything but gold, and the single-elimination portion of the Olympic tournament forgives no mistakes. Although the challenge is daunting, Ovechkin seems more focused on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to return Russia to hockey dominance at home.
“I’m pretty sure it’s probably going to be my biggest tournament,” Ovechkin said. “Right now, I’m playing for my country at home, and this is another crazy moment. I’m sure you can ask any Canadian guy. The biggest moment for them is when they play for the national team in their first home Olympic games. It’s probably the biggest moment for me.”