ARLINGTON, Va. — There’s been an open season on Russia leading up to the Sochi Games, and that clearly strikes a nerve with Alex Ovechkin.
For hockey fans, he will be the face of his nation at next month’s Winter Olympics. He has been called, at various times in his career, the greatest player in his sport, and he has three Most Valuable Player trophies from the NHL to help drive home that point.
He was also the most public in his defiance when there was doubt over whether the NHL would allow its players to go to Sochi. Ovechkin said he would play anyway. There was absolutely no way he was going to miss the Olympics in his home country.
So it’s inevitable that his views will be sought on anything and everything Sochi-related. Never mind that he’s a hockey player first and foremost, a fun-loving, 28-year-old guy who has kept his thoughts to himself when it comes to politics, social issues or the environment.
Nevertheless, when asked in an interview about misconceptions people have about Russia — and whether he’d like to clear some of them up — his tone became serious. The criticisms clearly bother him.
“To be honest with you, I don’t like to hear what the people say about Russia,” Ovechkin told The Associated Press after a recent practice at the Washington Capitals practice facility. “Because lots of people say good things, lots of people say bad things.”
Asked what he’s heard that hurts him the most, he let out a deep sigh.
“Again,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
He said that if he expresses an opinion — and the hot topics right now are gay rights, terrorism and Russian president Vladimir Putin — that “it’s going to be forever,” something that will get a lot of attention and that he can’t take back.
He did take one emphatic stand, however, one familiar to people no matter the nationality.
“I’m kind of the guy who supports my country,” he said. “Whatever happened has happened. And there’s nothing I can do, nothing you can do.”
Where Ovechkin does have influence is on the rink, where he has made it his mission to get Russia back to the top of the Olympic podium. The Soviets dominated the sport for decades at the Winter Games before the breakup of the union. The last Russian-led gold was won by the “Unified Team” of former Soviet republics at Albertville in 1992, which means Russia also hasn’t won gold since NHL players began participating in 1998.
Four years ago, the Russians were embarrassed 7-3 by host Canada in the quarterfinals in Vancouver. It was arguably the low moment of Ovechkin’s career. Certainly, he seemed to take it far worse than any of the Capitals’ meltdowns in the NHL playoffs.
“I don’t like to lose,” he said, “and especially if it’s a big tournament, it’s a Stanley Cup or Olympic Games or world championship, it’s one or two days you’re going to be down. … It’s bad, but nothing you can do about it.
“You have to forget about it and move forward.”
The expectations will be higher this time, and the pressure enormous back home. Ovechkin said he’s tried to ignore such thoughts during the daily grind with the Capitals, but he expects the pressure to be a strength for the Russian team once the Olympics begin.
“Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world,” he said. “And since I was a little kid and since everybody was a little kid, their dream was playing in Olympic games, especially if we have a chance to represent our country in Sochi in Russia, it’s unbelievable and it’s going to a great thing. That’s what I mean it’s a strength. I don’t think somebody (is) going to (think) their mission is done to be just on Olympic team. Our mission is to try to win gold medal.”
It’s hard to tell if the distractions of Sochi have affected Ovechkin’s play with the Capitals. He’s having another solid offensive season, with 32 goals in 43 games through Sunday, but his plus-minus rating of minus-15 was by far the worst on the team.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think about Sochi a lot,” he said. “I give 100 percent what I can to help Caps to win. And as soon as I play my last game before the Olympic Games, I’m going to concentrate on Sochi.”
A diplomatic answer, for sure, but he saved his best statesman-like response for last, when he was asked which of the two elusive prizes he’d like to win most — the Stanley Cup or the gold medal.
“Both,” he said with a smile.
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