ARLINGTON, Va. — It was the first official day of training camp and The Great Eight looked pooped.
Hunched over, wheezing to catch his breath, Alexander Ovechkin and his moment of fatigue had a few tongues wagging among the hundreds of enthusiastic fans at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex Saturday.
Were there problems with his conditioning? Had Ovechkin munched on too many Kremlin Kreme donuts during his summer in jolly ol’ Russia?
Personable Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau rejects any such notion, claiming his star forward has come to camp “in the best shape we’ve seen in a couple of years.” For his part, Ovechkin echoes those sentiments, revealing he changed trainers and worked out all summer with fellow Russian moneybags Ilya Kovalchuk.
“I did a little more running and weights than (in the past),” Ovechkin said.
The Great Eight is flashing his trademark gap-toothed grin when he says it. Yet it seems that somehow, someway, that famous smile does not carry the same intoxicating spell over the masses as it once did.
For some of us, he is still the most electrifying, riveting talent in the game, the one player that is worth the price of the NHL’s at-times inflated admission.
At the same time, it is evident that the bloom, in the eyes of some, has come off the rose.
Maybe it’s because they remember how Ovechkin’s so-called powerful Olympic team was humiliated 7-3 by Team Canada at the Vancouver Winter Games.
Maybe it’s because the image of Ovechkin’s controversial hit on Chicago’s Brian Campbell remains etched in their minds, an incident that landed the Caps’ sniper a two-game suspension.
Maybe it’s because the critics claim he hasn’t, at least from a team standpoint, won anything, pointing to the Caps’ first-round exit to the underdog Montreal Canadiens this past spring as a prime example.
Weighing all the factors, is it really fair to put all these things on the shoulders of Ovechkin, whose team has won just one playoff series during his time in Washington?
That question was posed to the always animated Boudreau, who was quick to offer an explanation as to why Ovechkin and his image may have suffered a hit, especially north of the border.
“He is the face of our franchise,” Boudreau said. “He was the face of the Russian Olympic team. He was the first guy to come out and say: “Yes, I’m going to represent my country at the 2014 Olympics in Russia.
“As for Canadians, Canadians always like to put Russians down. Think about it. That dates all the way back to the 1972 Summit Series.”
According to one team official, Ovechkin is very cognizant of what is written and reported about him. If he is being slagged somewhere out there in the blogosphere, chances are, he knows about it.
The criticism is an element all its own. He can deal with it. He must deal with it.
The losing? That’s a different story. That’s something, they say, “he takes deeply to heart.”
“We have to look forward, not back,” Ovechkin said. “When you lose, you don’t like it. But it’s time to move forward.
“It was great to be back out there.”
Boudreau is aware of the disappointment surrounding the Caps elimination by the Habs earlier this year. He doesn’t want his players to forget it. At the same time, as he comes to camp with pretty much the same core of players he had a year ago, he wants his guys to know he is confident in their abilities no matter what happened last spring.
To that end, Boudreau has supplied his players with grey t-shirts for training camp. Printed in large letters on the back are the words:
STAY ANGRY ... BELIEVE IN YOURSELVES.
Alex Ovechkin seems to believe — even if some of the critics might no longer believe in him as much.