ARLINGTON, Va. - Alex Ovechkin's mother has two Olympic gold medals. Maria Kirilenko, his fiancée, has one bronze. And he has none of any color.
Ask him about that — how the women in his life have medals while his Olympic hockey teams have finishes of fourth and sixth — and at first Ovechkin just smiles his familiar gap-toothed smile.
When, at last, he speaks, his answer comes in a rich Russian baritone and a slow, careful cadence:
Ovechkin is right. This is his time. The Washington Capitals captain is 28, in the prime of his career. He leads the NHL with 40 goals this season, nine more than anyone else. And the Olympic hockey tournament that begins Wednesday will be in Sochi, the Russian resort on the Black Sea where he once vacationed with his family as a boy of 10 or 11.
This trip will be no day at the beach. The Russians dearly want to win the Olympic hockey tournament on home ice. Ovechkin is the face of Russian hockey. If he leads his country to gold, his legacy is assured. If not, well, there is a legacy in that, too.
"Of course, it is pressure," he says. "It is pressure for everyone."
Ovechkin makes the point that the forgiving format of the Stanley Cup playoffs allows for seven-game series while the medal round of the Olympics is more like Russian roulette.
"It is not time to have mistakes," he says.
His mother, Tatiana, knows this well. She played in the first Olympic women's basketball tournament in Montreal in 1976. The Soviet Union routed the USA 112-77 on its way to gold. In that game, she had 10 points and six assists, her artful passes often finding Uljana Semjonova, the 7-2 center who dominated the era. Tatiana won gold again in Moscow in 1980, when the USA and other Western nations boycotted.
Five years later, she'd have a baby boy. And one day he would take her number, the one she wore on the basketball court, and make it his on the ice. Now the Great 8 seeks to return Russian hockey to bygone glory.
In 10 Olympic Games, from 1956 to 1992, the USSR (and Unified Team, as the former Soviets were known for one Olympiad) won eight gold medals, one silver and one bronze. But in the next five Games, from 1994 to 2010, Russian hockey has no gold, one silver and one bronze.
Ovechkin's countrymen last won hockey gold in 1992. He was 6. This time, on home ice, Ovechkin thinks gold is his destiny, and his country's.
"Of course, I have this dream," he says.
So is winning the Olympic hockey tournament more important to him than winning the NHL's playoff tournament? More bluntly, does gold trump Stanley?
"I think they are two different categories," Ovechkin says. "With Stanley Cup, you play for team. With Olympics, you play for country."
It's easy enough to read between those lines — a gap wider than a goalie's five-hole. Ovechkin wants very much to win a Stanley Cup, for his team and for his adopted American city. But he burns to win Olympic gold — for his mother, and his motherland.
Patriotism comes easily
Ovechkin is standing in a darkened spare locker room at the Capitals practice facility for a photo shoot for this story. He is wrapped in a Russian flag of red, white and blue, though of slightly different shades than his Capitals uniform.
He drapes the flag over his shoulders. He holds it over his stick. He stretches it over his gloved wingspan. Patriotism comes easily to him. The Caps are his job. Russia is his home.
And Kirilenko is his love. The WTA's 24th-ranked women's tennis player is out of a line of blond Russian beauties that includes Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova. Ovechkin and Kirilenko met at the 2011 U.S. Open, and he proposed just more than a year ago as New Year's Eve gave way to New Year's.
"I fell on one knee and proposed like a gentleman," as Ovechkin put it on Russian TV last summer.Their shared experience as top-level athletes sharpens their relationship."It helps us, brings us closer — we understand each other very well," Kirilenko told Glamour magazine. "Two athletes, especially two talented athletes, how can that be a problem?"
Ovechkin was in London in 2012 when Kirilenko and doubles partner Nadia Petrova won bronze. "We take to Moscow and make party!!" he tweeted then.
He says now that he enjoyed being there and soaking up the Olympic atmosphere while cheering her on.
"Of course, she wanted a better one," he says of bronze. "It was great feeling to support her. The women playing, it is hard to beat them."
His favorite goal
Ovechkin scored his 400th NHL goal just before Christmas.
"It is a good number," he says.
Ask for his favorite, and he says, "Probably all of them. It's pretty hard to score goals in this league."
Probe a little deeper, and you learn his favorite probably didn't come in the NHL at all but at the Olympics. He roofed a shot over Canada's Martin Brodeur in the 2006 Torino Games to break a scoreless tie in the third period.
Russia would win 2-0, knocking Canada out of the tournament.
"Everybody in my country is jumping, I think," he famously said after. "And everybody at the Olympics will drink lots of vodka."
The goal was top shelf, even if the vodka wasn't. "One of the biggest of my career," he says now. "The first time I play against Canada."
Canadians love hockey, but not Russian hockey. Feelings between the rival nations are hard as ice.
"Yeah, I agree with you," Ovechkin says. "It is battle between two big countries for sport. It has always been like that. It is nice to be part of it."
It wasn't so nice in Vancouver in 2010 when Canada blitzed Russia 7-3 in the quarterfinals. Ovechkin took the brunt of the criticism. Russian society and media "turned on him," as Ovechkin recently put it to Sovetsky Sports, to "raise their name at the expense of another human being."
Canada would go on to win gold on home ice as Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin's nemesis, scored the winner in overtime against the USA. Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller gave up that golden goal. He hopes to be in net when the USA plays Russia on Saturday.
"He's a bull," Miller says of 6-3, 230-pound Ovechkin. "He can shoot from anywhere because he is so strong."
The saying goes that a journey of 1,000 miles must begin with a single step. The Sochi torch relay of 65,000 kilometers — more than one-and-a-half times the circumference of the Earth — began with an Ovi step.
Ovechkin was Russia's first torchbearer when the flame was lit in Olympia, Greece, in September, a measure of the esteem his homeland holds for him.
"Is great honor," he says with characteristic brevity.
Ovechkin told the world four years ago he'd play in Sochi whether the NHL was sending its players or not. These Games are, in some sense, his birthright.
The USSR hosted the Summer Olympics once, 1980's Moscow Games, where Ovechkin's mother won her second gold. Just imagine the symmetry if her son should win gold this time, as Russia hosts its first Winter Games.
Ovechkin's mother and father live much of the NHL season in the Washington region, but his mother declined to speak for this story, saying through a Capitals spokesman she wanted the focus to be on her son, not on herself.
Her son understands. He prefers not to talk about the Soviet era in which she played. "It was different time," he says, and leaves it at that. He also prefers not to talk about political or security issues. He does say that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a huge fan of Russian hockey.
Ovechkin credits his mother and his father, who played pro soccer, with instilling in him a love for sports and for competition. His mother, he says, doesn't speak much about her Olympic successes. Her medals were rarely on display when Ovechkin was growing up. She kept them in a box, stored out of sight in the garage.
"She doesn't like to show them to someone," he says. "She kept them closed up."
Ovechkin's garrulous personality is more open. It is not in his nature to hide his achievements. So if, at long last, Ovechkin wins a medal in Sochi, where will he keep it? He just shrugs and smiles his gap-toothed smile.
"I don't know," Ovechkin says. "First of all, have to win it to talk about it."