WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the days leading up to what was billed as a potential preview of the Eastern Conference finals, Alexander Ovechkin wasn’t thinking about the Boston Bruins. And he certainly didn’t have his game face on. Instead the captain of the Washington Capitals had a smile stretched across his 34-year-old face as he entertained 100 special hockey players at the team’s practice facility.
These are the moments that transcend his 679 career goals and the myriad of individual awards he’s garnered over the course of his 14-year career. And while it’s only an hour out of a day in the life of one of the game’s biggest stars, it means so much to players and their families who look forward to this day all year.
“The kids remember me and every year they say that they can’t wait for next year to see me again. It gives them a smile and it gives me a smile,” said Ovechkin, who will receive the 2019 Wayne Gretzky International Award, to be presented tomorrow night during the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
The Gretzky Award was established by the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999 to honor international individuals who have made major contributions to the growth and advancement of the game in the United States.
It was only fitting that the first award was presented to Gretzky himself for his many contributions to the game, including expanding the popularity of the sport after being traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988.
In subsequent years a number of hockey’s biggest names have received the award, including Gordie Howe and his family, Scotty Bowman, Bobby Hull and Anatoly Tarasov to name a few.
“It’s a huge honor,” Ovechkin said. “It’s tremendous to be associated with that kind of company. There are lots of big names [who are among the past winners], so it’s great.”
It’s an honor years in the making and date back to Ovechkin’s first game in a Capitals uniform in 2005. Since that time, he has become the face of the franchise and a fixture in the community, as are many members of the organization.
“This organization does an unbelievable job, as do all the organizations in the D.C. area and throughout the NHL to support kids and everybody who needs help” he said. “That’s part of our job.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Ovechkin brought home the Stanley Cup to the Nation’s Capital in 2018. For hockey fans who have endured decades of disappointment since the franchise came to town in 1975, it was long overdue.
“I’ve been to a lot of games over the years but it’s hard to put into words what it was like when they were making that Cup run,” said John Coleman, the long-time president of the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association.
During his seven years as the hockey director with the Washington Little Caps, Dan Jablonic had a front row seat to Ovechkin’s contributions to the local hockey community. And in his eyes, the Gretzky Award couldn’t be given to a more deserving individual.
“I’ve seen him go to schools where most of the kids didn’t really know anything about hockey. But they knew who Ovi is. They’ve heard about him and seen his highlights on TV,” said Jablonic, who joined USA Hockey as a regional manager with the American Development Model in 2018.
“His energy is contagious and that resonates with the kids. They want to be like him, no matter what sport they play. He inspires them to have fun with whatever they do.”
While Ovechkin leads by example, it’s part of a culture of giving that starts at the top and permeates throughout the organization, making it one of the most popular franchises in the league.
“The Caps commitment to youth sports is impressive,” Jablonic said. “It’s the culture that starts with their owner, Ted Leonsis and works its way throughout the organization.”
That allows teammates to follow their captain’s lead in giving back to a community that shows them so much love and support.
“Sometimes you forget the influence you have on people and forget that the people are watching because you’re just out there playing a game and doing your job,” said T.J. Oshie, who came to Washington, D.C., in 2015.
“So, when you get out there and skate with little kids or special needs players and see their faces light up, it kind of takes you back a little bit. You realize how lucky you are to play the game, and how special it is to be able to brighten someone’s day just by being on the ice with them.”