From Russia with love

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

For all that he has accomplished in the early stages of his hockey career, there remains a wish that Alexander Ovechkin wouldn't mind fulfilling by the end of the 2005 world junior championship.

Those who are true stars of the game love nothing more than to face the ultimate challenge, and Ovechkin is no different. With that in mind, Ovechkin thinks it would be great if he crossed on-ice paths with Canada's Sidney Crosby in the next few days.

Canada and Russia did not meet in the 2004 world junior a year ago in Finland, depriving Ovechkin and Crosby a chance to square off against one another.

"I've never even seen him play," Ovechkin said yesterday through an interpreter following Russia's practice at the Ralph Engelstad Arena here in Thief River Falls, Minn. "Of course, I have heard lots of good things about him. If the draw of the tournament makes us play against him and Canada, I will be ready."

While the future of the NHLcan't be seen with the clearest of crystal balls, there is one certainty: When the league resumes play, it won't be long before it can start rebuilding what will be a shattered image on the shoulders of Ovechkin and Crosby. Ovechkin has the talent to start the rebuilding phase in Washington simply by showing up, and Crosby will have the same effect on whatever team realizes its wildest dreams and gets him to itself after the next draft.

Crosby's easy smile is a trademark that helps define him when he is off the ice, and Ovechkin has a similar trait. It may have seemed strange 20 years ago, but a Russian kid will happily stride into Washington in the near future and spread goodwill with his outgoing ways.

"He is definitely not the typical Russian," Goran Stubb, the director of scouting in Europe for NHL Central Scouting, said. "Russians are not shy, but they don't let anybody come close to them. But Ovechkin is a social guy. He is outspoken, and he is not afraid to meet people. As great a player as he is, he also is a great individual."

Ovechkin, who is fairly fluent in English but took a safer route in using an interpreter, greeted a reporter with a warm handshake moments after stepping off the ice. As much as Crosby has learned to be patient with the media, so too has Ovechkin, who became part of the hockey psyche two years ago at the world junior in Halifax.

Ovechkin's upbringing has been widely documented. His mother Tatiana earned gold medals with Russia in women's basketball at the Summer Olympics in 1976 and 1980, and his father Mikail was a pro soccer player with Moscow Dynamo.

SUNNY DISPOSITION

Ovechkin credits his parents for his generally sunny disposition, which he maintains despite meeting with a couple of tragedies. Ovechkin's older brother Sergei passed away a few years ago in a car accident.

Last winter, Ovechkin lost another person he was close to, Anna Goruven. During the world junior, Goruven, who was an adviser for agent Don Meehan, passed away suddenly.

Ovechkin, who has yet to sign with the Capitals, realizes that when he does land in Washington, they will rely on him for off-ice sensibilities, so his positive outlook on life will be a boon.

"You have to get along with everybody," Ovechkin said. "I don't want to make enemies, especially when I am coming to a foreign country and being far away from home.

"My mom was one of the best basketball players of her time and she is an inspiration to me. I am very proud to represent my family."

It's no surprise that Ovechkin is disappointed with the current NHL lockout, for he probably would be halfway through his rookie season had the 2004-05 regular season started on time. But he's not letting his abundant talents rot in the Russian Super League. Now in his third full season with the club, Ovechkin has 10 goals and 12 assists in 31 games, two fewer points than he had in 53 games last year.

"Skill-wise, he could definitely be playing in the NHL," Stubb said. "(Ilya) Kovalchuk came over at a younger age and I am sure that Ovechkin could have done it too. But I think the lockout has been good for Ovechkin because now there are a lot of good players in the Russian league and he has improved because of that.

"Time will show if he will be the best Russian-born player ever in the NHL. I think he will, if and when they start to play again."

That's a heap of pressure, but it rolls off Ovechkin's wide shoulders rather easily.

"I would love to play in the NHL and probably would have if the games were going on," the 6-foot-2, 212-pound forward said. "As soon as they are ready to go, I will be ready to go.

"The main thing for me once I get there is to play hockey. I will do everything possible to help them out. I play in Russia, but my mother team now is Washington."


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