A thousand points of light: Alex Ovechkin's enthusiasm for the game hasn't waned

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The man who recorded his 1,000th point Wednesday, the man who has been the catalyst for the growth of hockey in the American capital and far beyond throughout an 11-year career, has on this day given new meaning to the word casual.

Gray sweatpants, T-shirt and a gray hoodie might explain the lack of any kind of mob scene as I head to lunch with Alex Ovechkin near the Washington Capitals' practice facility.

It's not until near the end of lunch that there's a moment in this busy Italian restaurant that betrays the presence of the casually attired sports icon.

"Sick goal last night," the waiter quietly offers as the bill is paid, a reference to Ovechkin's trademark one-timer that had secured a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Funny how over the course of 11 years the descriptions of Ovechkin have rarely changed. His exuberance, his zest for life, his refusal to let small things -- like not knowing a lick of English in the early days -- impede his being at the heart of, well, everything, have remained virtually constant. And if you want to know what Ovechkin has meant to this city, this franchise and this game, his enthusiasm is as good a place as any to start. And to finish.

"I remember being at the combine in Toronto," recalled Capitals GM Brian MacLellan, who has been with the organization for 15 years. "He came into our scouting room. We've got, like, 10, 12 scouts around the table interviewing kids. He just came in randomly, because I think he knows we're picking first overall and it's him or [Evgeni] Malkin. And he goes around and he shakes everybody's hand. And, I mean, he doesn't have a grasp of the whole language, but [he's] assertive, real outgoing and smiles and [is] just engaging. I couldn't imagine doing that in a Russian community. That's who he is."

In owner Ted Leonsis' office, on an easel in red magic marker, Leonsis has outlined what he refers to as the "8 Effect": the exponential growth in grassroots hockey in the Washington area, the explosion of season-ticket holders and the importance of Ovechkin to it all.

"We had 2,900 season-ticket holders when I bought the team," Leonsis recalled. "You wrote we should be contracted."

Ouch. But that's how irrelevant this team, this marketplace, was before Ovechkin changed everything.

The Caps have now sold out 337 straight games, with no end in sight.

"And to be honest, we could have 20,000 season tickets," Leonsis said.

Grassroots hockey participation is up 30 percent in the Washington area since Ovechkin's arrival.

"What he's done is not only make for a great hockey town today, but he's laid the seeds for this to happen all the way, and it's a two-generational phenomenon," Leonsis said.

When he first arrived in Washington, Ovechkin's hotel room didn't have any windows. Or, at best, the windows were tiny. No, he insists, he wasn't mistakenly sent to a local prison. On one of his first trips to the Caps' practice facility, Ovechkin asked veteran Lithuanian Dainius Zubrus to stop at a sporting goods store so he could buy tape and a new shield for his helmet.

"He had it all planned out," Zubrus said, chuckling at the memory. "I'm like, 'Yeah, Alex, just worry about playing hockey. I think these things are going to be taken care of. This is a little bit different than in Russia.'"

At one point, Zubrus was slated to be Ovechkin's roommate, but Ovechkin told Zubrus he thought he should have a North American roommate, so he couldn't just talk Russian when he felt like it, and he could learn important things like jokes and how to say "knife" and "fork."

"I've seen a bunch of guys from Russia come in," Zubrus said. "Some of them, 10 years later, they don't really speak much better English. Alex was different. For me, it was a little different way of thinking. To take himself out of his comfort zone and learn and get better at things. It was unusual."

Ovechkin was released from his windowless hotel room and temporarily moved in with then-GM George McPhee and his family.

"I spent almost, like, 10 days in his house, and we ride the bike together," Ovechkin recalled. "I play with the kids, and his son gets drafted up in Buffalo: Graham. I remember I play with him and he can't catch me on the ice. And I tell him, 'If you catch me, I'm going to give you a video game.' And right now he's with an NHL team, drafted. It's kind of pretty funny story."

Then there's the cereal story.

"I wake up," Ovechkin said. "Everybody have breakfast and George ask me, 'Ovi, what do you want?' I don't know how to [say] 'cereal.' So I start talking in Russian and he's like, 'What is that?' So I have to go in the kitchen and open all the doors. But then, it was a great time."

"There were, like, a dozen things in a row where literally, when he would leave, you'd say, 'Who is this guy?' And all positive," Leonsis recalled.

Like the day Leonsis invited Ovechkin to the owner's house because McPhee was busy.

"I'd never done this with a player," Leonsis said. "He comes to my house and my son brings some friends over, and they start playing basketball together. And Alex starts competing hard, trying to dunk, and they're playing full court. I'm playing, and all I could think about is that Alex's going to blow his knee out."

Next day.

"The next night we go to a Ravens game," Leonsis said. "Now, this is his first week in the United States. He doesn't speak much English. ... We arrive and we go into the owner's box, and the president of the Ravens has a young daughter, probably 24 or something, and Alex is charming the guy's daughter. They start dating. OK. Alex goes at halftime, he's being interviewed on Monday Night Football or whatever it was.

"It was, 'Who is this guy who's, like, taking over the city, the community, like in a week?'"

It's a bit unnerving how those early days have morphed seemingly overnight into a career that ranks among the greatest of all time. Ovechkin acknowledged that in recent days his assault on 1,000 points has come up in casual conversation with his teammates.

"Of course it's a huge number," Ovechkin said. "Couple of days ago we were talking, my teammates, and we just watched all the stats and they're like, 'Holy s---, you have 1,000 points almost.'

"It's a very cool number," he said with a smile.

Veteran forward Brooks Laich is pretty honest about how he felt about the early Ovechkin treatment. The team immediately started looking for a place for Ovechkin to stay and was helping him get settled in Washington. He hadn't played a single NHL game. What about the kids who had been working their butts off in the minors to be part of the change in Washington? They didn't get that treatment.

"And then once I saw him play, I smartened up and I was like, 'Oh, I get it now,'" Laich said. "He was that exceptional. You could tell he was going to be a generational talent.

"It was so much fun to watch because everything wasn't business as usual yet. Now ... it's business as usual."

And maybe that's what happens when someone gets to 1,000 points in 879 games: you become kind inured to the otherworldly quality of his play, his accomplishments.

"Sometimes you forget his greatness," Laich said. "You have to remind yourself and slow it down."

If his greatness is sometimes forgotten, his exuberance isn't. There's a famous dryer into which a young Sidney Crosby poured thousands of pucks in the basement of his home in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. We imagine, perhaps, that these stories are the domain of Canadian or American kids. Nope.

"I have a country house and I have a net, and me, my grandpa and my dad, on the crossbar, they put cans," Ovechkin recalled. "And the young guys, we always want to go and run around at the country house because they have lots of space, lots of kids, and we play soccer and we played different games and we would play hockey as well. So we'd decide we have to hit all the cans, and then you can go. Every time I miss, I would have to take the puck back, put the can back. I think every kid who loves hockey has some shots and some drills just to be who you are."

Oh, yeah. The Stanley Cup.

It comes up as we discuss his trophy room in the basement of his Washington home and how his parents sometimes take his hardware home to Russia without telling him. Hey, where's that Hart Trophy? Hey, where's that "Rocket" Richard Trophy? Russia? Oh.

The trophy that doesn't exist in any form -- replica or otherwise, in the Washington trophy room or the Russian home -- is the Stanley Cup.

"All the awards are special," he said. "I'm pretty happy with what I've done personally. Still, one goal I can't reach yet in NHL, it's the Stanley Cup."

Does he think about it?

Ovechkin answers like an adult to a silly child.

"Yeah, of course," Ovechkin said. "I'm human. Of course I have dreams. Of course I have feelings. And I know my friends in Moscow, they just have a dream about it too, carrying the Cup. So does my family as well."

But does he worry it might not happen, that the blank space will forever remain unoccupied?

"No," he said. "I'm pretty sure one day I'm going to raise the Stanley Cup."

And with that, having finished his chicken sandwich mélange but having left most of his french fries and a second diet cola, Alex Ovechkin is out the door in his baggy gray sweatsuit, cellphone to his ear, in hot pursuit of history -- whatever history has in store for him, and his team, and his city.