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Summer of the Stanley Caps: Alex Ovechkin

July 10, 2018
Lord Stanley certainly got his money’s worth.

Back in 1892 or 1893, Lord Stanley of Preston – the governor general of Canada at the time – spent 10 guineas, or half a pound sterling, to have a “challenge cup” made for the game of hockey. Stanley and his family had taken to the game during their time in Canada, and his purchase of less than fifty American dollars at the time likely made the smallest of ripples back then.

But as Bruce Springsteen sagely penned: “From small things mama, big things one day come." 

Over the years the Stanley Cup has evolved exponentially in terms of prestige, and a century and a quarter into its existence, it is a mystical and magical trophy whose mere presence elicits only the most positive of reactions from those in its vicinity. Over the last 125 years, Lord Stanley’s fifty bucks have brought more pure joy, exhilaration and happiness to more people than he ever could have fathomed, as we were reminded constantly over this past weekend in Moscow when Caps captain Alex Ovechkin had his day with the Cup. 

Every player’s journey to becoming a Stanley Cup champion is by definition a long and twisted road replete with potholes, road blocks and detours. When their individual journey finally does result in the hoisting of the Cup, it affects so many more people than just that player – family, friends, former teammates, coaches, trainers, as well as fans from far and wide. Each player’s day with the Cup is a chance to share that joy and reverie with those who played a part along the way, as well as fans of the game who are well aware of the majesty and history of the Stanley Cup, and the years of toil that preceded that glorious occasion.

Our journey started on Thu. July 5 in Washington, when a group of reporters, photographers, videographers and digital and social media types set out for Moscow on an overnight flight. We arrived early the next day in Moscow, and as Gram Parsons would have put it, “Let me tell you how it all went down.”

Friday, July 5

We came to Moscow without the Cup, which was in the Washington area on July 4 for Caps defenseman John Carlson’s day with the it. This was my second trip to Russia; I came here for a dozen days in May of 2007 to cover Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and a handful of other Caps players of that era at the IIHF World Championship, which was held in Moscow that spring. Backstrom had yet to play in the NHL at that time; he signed his entry-level contract days after the tournament ended. For many of the rest of us, it was a first-time trip to this part of the planet. 

I slept for maybe an hour of the 10-hour direct flight from Dulles to Moscow, so when we checked into our Moscow hotel early on Friday morning, all I really wanted was a pillow and a bed. But we all congregated for breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then went off to our rooms to get some much-needed rest.

By mid-afternoon, much of our crew was at work downtown, getting some B-roll and checking out Red Square and some of the other local attractions. Three of us had a late dinner date with Ovechkin and some of his pals and their wives late Friday night on a yacht restaurant on the Moscow River. We arrived after most had already dined, and Ovi and his boys – including Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov – welcomed us warmly and made sure we were well fed and lubricated as we all sat together around a massive table watching Belgium upset Brazil in World Cup soccer action.

With two long days and nights ahead of us, we didn’t want to go too hard on Friday night, but once the game ended and the plates were pushed away, we did want to get a little taste of the Moscow night life. One of Ovechkin’s friends directed us to a nightclub not too far away, and after some minor adventures in transportation, we arrived at a lively and bouncing place where we ran into two Russian NHL players from two different teams who were enjoying the evening together with a group of friends. We paid our respects, had a drink and headed back to the hotel. The best was yet to come.

Saturday, July 6

The arrival of the Cup was slated for early Saturday afternoon, and it was to make its first Moscow appearance of the summer at the World Cup’s FIFA Fan Zone. We all piled into a large van, which was really more like a small bus once you were inside. We snaked our way through the typically snarled Moscow traffic to our destination, then awaited the Cup’s arrival there.

It was a bright and breezy sunny day at that point, and word filtered through to us that thousands were already lined up to spend a few seconds with Ovechkin and the Cup. We waited for perhaps 45 minutes before the Cup arrived directly from the airport via police escort, along with its two caretakers for this trip, Mario Della Savia and Howie Borrow. This weekend with the Cup – and the days to follow in the Czech Republic – were a two-man job for sure. Mario stayed with the Cup and the rest of us while Howie went back to the hotel in a taxi to get some rest in preparation for the second shift.

With the Cup now in tow, our entourage expanded to a second van to accommodate the chalice and its bulky, wheeled carrying case. We rolled back to the staging area where the Cup was placed on a pedestal with a professional photographer poised to snap thousands of shots in the coming couple of hours.

With Ovechkin positioned next to the gleaming Cup, the procession started right away. One or two or a few at a time, fans moved through an orderly and swift line. There would be no posing for selfies or asking for autographs, and virtually everyone adhered to these guidelines. They stepped up to the front, visibly beaming with pride at the chance to have a photo snapped with the first Russian captain ever to bring the Cup home. Fathers and sons, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters, entire families, and many solo fans waited patiently to shake Ovechkin’s hand and have a photo taken to commemorate the occasion. Many would caress the Cup’s silver curves on their way past, and you’d hear the odd yell, whoop or holler of exclamation as they departed the stage after.

Russians are typically not an emotive people, but the pride and joy was clearly evident as they had a few moments in the presence of one of the game’s all-time greats, and one of the best players the country has ever produced, as well as the most revered and recognizable trophy in team sports. 

This went on for the better part of three hours and continued as the skies opened up and poured a steady rain down upon the line. Ovechkin and the Cup were stationed beneath a canopy, able to remain dry. Thousands of fans from all walks of life, wearing all manner of clothing from casual to more formal – and often including some matter of Capitals gear –proceeded in an orderly fashion through the line, the sudden rain doing nothing to dampen their excitement of spending a few seconds in the presence of greatness. 

After a short on-stage appearance at the Fan Fest and a quick private session with some high ranking Russian officials, we were back in the vans and on our way to our next destination, the Novogorsk Dynamo Training Center and Hockey School, where a teenaged Ovechkin played and trained in the years before Washington made him the first overall choice in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Even with a police escort, this ride took the better part of an hour, and hundreds were on hand awaiting his arrival.

Immediately upon arrival, Ovechkin hugged the woman behind the front reception desk; she has been working there since his youthful days at the center. Ovechkin’s parents were also waiting here to greet him, and it was his father’s first opportunity to see, hold and raise the Cup, providing an instant and epic photo opportunity for the media. With a group of young and wide-eyed current Dynamo hockey youth looking on, a small ceremony was held outside in front of the training center, including brief speeches from some of his former coaches before another shorter session of photo opportunities with Ovechkin and the Cup.

Inside and upstairs at the training center is a hall of fame of sorts for the many hockey greats who have gone through the Dynamo program. Framed NHL jerseys from its many noteworthy graduates adorn the wall, along with encased displays of old equipment and team photos from over the years. Ovechkin is featured prominently as you’d expect, with a white Caps jersey from back in the blue, black and bronze color scheme days and several other photos and artifacts, including a life-sized cutout.

The Dynamo “hall of fame” also houses a Nicklas Backstrom display, as the Caps’ center played there briefly during the 2012-13 NHL lockout.

Ovechkin held a press conference in Russian at the training center, and then he went into the tiny locker room where he laced up his skates as a boy and put the blades on one more time for a quick twirl with the Cup along with some close family and friends. After another short series of photos with Dynamo members and others, Ovechkin posed for photos outside with the policemen who comprised the police escort detail. Then it was back into the vans for the return trip to the hotel, and after a shower and a change of clothes, we assembled again for the evening’s final destination: Royal Arbat Karaoke Club, Moscow.

I’ve spent very little of my time on this planet in karaoke bars, perhaps a total of 15 minutes before this night. Royal Arbat proved to be a luxuriously appointed and opulent spot with a number of large tables and big screen televisions. Those screens provided the backdrop of the early portion of this affair, as the Russia-Croatia World Cup contest held the rapt attention of the guests as and after they arrived. A wide variety of excellent food – sushi, salads and a variety of appetizers was spread liberally at every table, and the drinks began to flow freely, as they would until after sunrise the next day. 

We all watched as Russia took an early 1-0 lead, but needed a thrilling goal late in extra time to match Croatia’s early goal in extra time, thus forcing a penalty kick conclusion, one that didn’t go in Russia’s favor. The disappointment was very brief, and it cast no pall whatsoever on the remainder of the night.

Once the game was over, the screens showed a 20-minute video highlight reel that neatly encapsulated Ovechkin’s many exploits and milestones from the 2017-18 season as well as Washington’s thrilling 24-game playoff run that resulted in winning the Stanley Cup, the very reason that brought us all to this karaoke club on a Saturday night in Moscow, exactly one month after Ovechkin first hoisted the Cup in Las Vegas. All the while, the Cup sat gleaming on a stand adorned with the Capitals’ logo in front of a red backdrop with the redundant words “Stanley Cup” arched over the top. Certainly no one in this room was unaware of the identity of the comely silver chalice sitting just off to the side of the stage. 

Once the clock struck midnight and the calendar rolled over to July 8, Ovechkin and wife Anastasia began celebrating their first wedding anniversary, and their beautiful and impeccably produced wedding video was shown on the big screens. For the remainder of the night, the two videos were shown on a loop, sans sound, providing the backdrop to the onstage festivities.

Popular Russian singers and rappers were on hand to help kick off the karaoke part of the night as we wended into the night with much singing and dancing and carousing. In addition to Orlov, Caps teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov flew into town earlier on Saturday for the weekend’s festivities. Former Caps teammate Sergei Fedorov was also in attendance, and one of the evening’s great moments came when Fedorov drank from the Cup – not for the first time – and then he and Ovechkin shared a warm and lingering embrace.

Perhaps the funniest moment of the evening occurred when the Cup was off on one of its frequent forays around the room somewhere, and the pedestal was left unadorned, save for a couple of half-abandoned drinks and a woman’s black clutch. Never one to miss an opportunity for a well-crafted guffaw, Kuznetsov approached the pedestal and slowly but triumphantly lifted the purse over his head for a photo opportunity for the few who were paying attention at that exact moment.

All three of the Caps’ Russian players took their turns at the mic at some point, sometimes together and sometimes in duets or solos, and they never failed to entertain. Anastasia Ovechkin proved to be an extremely accomplished singer when her turn with the mic came, easily the best of the non-professionals to my admittedly untrained ears. I didn’t understand a word I heard, but it didn’t matter. Some things – music and the Stanley Cup, for example – transcend any language barrier. That’s even truer when the levels of fun and reverie were as elevated as they were on this summer’s night.

Later in the night, Kuznetsov devilishly lured me my from my karaoke cocoon, and he and I danced and sang a song together. Rather, we danced together while he sang and I tried in vain to sing in a language I can neither read nor speak. I’ve spent the last couple days hoping no video or photographic evidence of this sordid episode will ever surface.

Shortly before we departed for the night, Ovechkin could be seen just holding the Cup with both arms in his lap as if it were a child; a fitting scene with his own first-born child due to arrive before summer’s end. 

The crowd began to thin out, and eventually the time came for the Cup to get back to the hotel for a shining up and a few hours of rest; another long and busy day was only several hours away by this point. With us Caps and Monumental staffers in formation around it, Howie carried the Cup out of the Royal Arbat and onto the Moscow streets. A trio of revelers stumbled out of another nearby nightspot, and one of them began excitedly exclaiming, “Coupe of Stanley! Coupe of Stanley!” and chasing after us. We marveled once again at the Cup’s unrivaled magnetism, and then settled the old girl in her carrying case, and headed back to the hotel.

A pair of metal detectors sit immediately inside of the lobby of the hotel, and upon our return the Cup was loaded up on the belt, still inside of its hulking case. The security guard was skeptical when we told him of the contents, but a quick peek inside showed us to be telling the truth – it was indeed the Stanley Cup – and elicited a rare hint of smile from the normally stone-faced guard. 

Sunday, July 8

The Cup was up and off on its way well before us mortal humans were on Sunday; Ovechkin had some personal and private time with it away from cameras and recorders and notebooks. He took it to a private club where some Russian politicians – including the prime minister – and dignitaries assembled for a high level pick-up game. Ovechkin himself did not participate in the game, but he posed for photos with the Cup afterwards, and he had lunch with the players at the club after the game. 

In the afternoon, Ovechkin and his parents brought the Cup to the humble and tiny apartment where Alex lived as a very young boy. He posed for a couple of photos on his single bed with it, showed Mario his boyhood hockey card collection and other artifacts from decades ago. 

Later in the afternoon, Ovechkin brought it to the people as only he can, taking it right into the teeth of the Sunday afternoon tourist crowd in Red Square, carrying it waist high and walking at a steady clip as a crowd of onlookers quickly gathered steam and size in his wake. He carried it right out into the middle of the Square, urged the crowd to back up some to give him some room, and then hoisted it high for all to see, with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background to provide a brilliant photo opportunity for the many phones that suddenly shot up all around him. 

After this majestic tour, Ovechkin carried it right back out in the same fashion as the rest of us did our best to stay close to him and to stay on our feet among the quickly growing hordes of humanity. He climbed into a waiting police car and was soon whisked away to the Cup’s final destination during his time with it, a dinner with family and close friends at Modus restaurant in Moscow. 

Once again, the food and the wine were tremendous, and the setting was lavish. Each of his parents gave short speeches as did other family members, and Alex and Anastasia both spoke as well. The videos from the previous nights were played again, and the guests included Russian hockey legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Slava Fetisov and Ovechkin’s former Washington teammate Alexander Semin. Once dinner was finished, it was time for more karaoke and dancing, more Russian music luminaries, and many more photos with the Cup with Ovechkin and various permutations of the assembled guests.

Several thousand dollars worth of caviar was ladled into the bowl of the Cup, and guests took turns spooning some of the delicacy onto their plates and tasting it in widely varying amounts. Soon afterwards, a massive, multi-tiered carrot cake was revealed from behind a partition, with a twirling likeness of Ovechkin – roughly a foot tall – holding the Cup aloft as one of the middle tiers. Ovechkin and Anastasia cut the cake together and shared it with their guests ahead of even more singing and dancing, more photos with the Cup, and a handful of onstage keg stands. 

As midnight drew nearer, so too did Ovechkin’s day and a half with the Cup. When the time came for Mario and Howie to bring the chalice back to the hotel ahead of a Monday flight to Prague, Ovechkin hoisted it and he and Orlov and Kuznetsov gave it one last bewhiskered, simultaneous kiss as they held it aloft.

Ovechkin then dutifully carried the Cup out into the cool Moscow night, putting his lips to it one final time as he set it carefully and lovingly into its form-fitted carrying case.

“See you next year,” he said. “Sleep well.”