Ovechkin, Zubrus work well on, off the ice
Just days removed from Election Tuesday, when we saw several changes in leadership throughout the country, it's only fitting that we turn our attention this week to our nation's capital, as in the Washington Capitals.
Talk about change ...
The days of underachieving are long gone.
Through Thursday's games, the Capitals are 6-5-4, the team's best start since the 1997-98 season. Why? The strong work ethic and, more important, the flat-out fun this group is having.
At the heart of all of it is 21-year-old reigning Calder Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin. He has come into his own on and off the ice with a little help from "running mate," linemate and road roomie Dainius Zubrus. The right winger, who is seven years older than Ovechkin, grew up in Lithuania when it was part of the Soviet Union. That alignment forced Zubrus to learn how to speak Russian in school. It came in handy for the Capitals when Ovechkin, the No. 1 overall pick in 2004, arrived at training camp before the start of last season.
From the get-go, Zubrus took Ovechkin under his wing. Zubrus told me that when he picked up Ovechkin for his first day of camp, the rookie asked him to stop by a sporting goods store on the way. A little confused, Zubrus asked him why. Answered Alex: "Because I'm going to need a shield for my helmet." Zubrus smiled and assured Ovechkin that the Capitals would give him everything he needed.
"All they ask of you is to work hard and play hard," Zubrus then told Ovechkin. "The days of supplying your own equipment and fending for yourself like you did in Russia are over."
The questions kept coming, but Zubrus' answers gave the then-rookie peace of mind. Without having to worry about how to get his suits dry-cleaned or how to use the ATM, Ovechkin could focus on what he does best -- play hockey.
What impressed Zubrus most about Ovechkin was how nice and smart he was. During last season's record-setting rookie campaign (he became just the second rookie in history to record 50 goals and 100 points), Ovechkin wanted to fine-tune his English, so he roomed with a North American teammate, Brian Willsie. Ovechkin already knew the basics, now he wanted to know how to really use the language, even slang words.
It didn't take long for Ovechkin to figure it out, and he was soon cracking jokes in the locker room and became an expert at ordering room service. Speaking of food, Zubrus, who rooms with Ovechkin on the road this season, has even influenced Ovechkin's eating habits. Zubrus said that when Ovechkin first came over from Russia, he thought everyone's diet included chocolate bars, chips and soda. McDonald's was a pregame meal. Zubrus had to tell him, "Alex, this is not what a professional athlete eats. We're going to have to change this a bit."
Zubrus is also impressed that Ovechkin is as nice and humble now as he was when he was worried about buying a shield for his helmet a year ago. "It's really amazing," Zubrus said.
Their friendship has boomed on the ice, as well. Ovechkin, Zubrus and captain Chris Clark have combined for 45 points in 15 games so far this season. It's one of the most feared lines in the NHL. No sophomore slump for Ovechkin, whose 52 goals and 54 assists eclipsed 100 points and matched Teemu Selanne's 100-point-plus rookie campaign in 1992-93.
Capitals coach Glen Hanlon on Ovechkin: "We wouldn't trade him for anyone in the world; he just seems to come through."
It's hard not to refer to Ovechkin as "Alexander the Great," but he prefers to be called "Ovie."
We might also be calling him MVP at the end of this season.
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column.