Alex Ovechkin embracing responsibilities with a smile

WASHINGTON -- Let us start with this: The bowling ball is not Alex Ovechkin's friend.

The Washington Capitals captain's delivery bears a striking resemblance to that of cartoon bowling master Fred Flintstone -- maybe it's the tippy-toes approach to the lane -- but that's where the resemblance ends.

A southpaw when it comes to bowling, Ovechkin approaches his delivery the same way he approaches a one-timer -- fiercely. That he's trying to put some spin on the ball while delivering it at about 100 miles an hour explains the workout the gutters are getting on this night. And he is equally adroit at sending the ball hurtling into the left or right gutter.

At one point coming back to the bank of seats at a trendy downtown D.C. bowling alley a few hundred yards from the Verizon Center, Ovechkin is told his bowling shoes are undone.

"Ah, that must be it," Ovechkin said with a smile.

Later, after a rare spare, Ovechkin stood in mock triumph before the group, hands on his hips.

Then there was his trip down the narrow barrier between lanes to check out a wayward pin that had made its way up the gutter after yet another of Ovechkin's off-target efforts made a violent trip down the gutter.

Ovechkin is here with three Russian teammates: Stanislav Galiev, Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov. They are with Rosanna Yi of Virginia and her extended family, who paid in excess of $11,000 at a recent charity event to spend the evening knocking down some pins with the boys.

"We're all hockey fans. We love the Caps," Yi explained.

Yi spends most of the evening with either a bowling ball or camera in her hand as she tries to make sure she adequately captures the moment.

She joked that she has told her 9-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, who is sporting an Ovechkin T-shirt with Russian lettering on the back, that this isn't an everyday thing; they aren't going to get to hang with Ovechkin and the boys every night, so they'd better enjoy it.

Given the smiles and hoots and hollers, the message doesn't seem to need repeating.

The players, led by Ovechkin, are gracious and outgoing, warm and friendly.

There are high-fives and moans of commiseration (mostly for Ovechkin's attempts) and shouts of glee when the pins are scattered for strikes or spares.

If you didn't know that these were professional hockey players, including arguably the greatest Russian player of all time and one of the game's icons, you'd swear it was just a group of old friends enjoying a regular outing.

The Yi family has crossed paths with Ovechkin at a few Caps fan events before, so none of this comes as a surprise to her.

"He's such a nice guy," she said. "He really embraces his role."

It's been quite a season for the Capitals' captain.

In the past 24 hours he had been to Andrews Air Force Base, where he donned a cushioned suit, was attacked by a military-trained dog and used a mobile bomb disposal robot to try to pick up Brooks Laich's shoe.

Before that, he donned a giant fuzzy bunny suit for a holiday skit the Capitals are putting on for their fans.

Yes, a bunny suit.

But one of the greatest players of his generation doesn't balk at the request; in fact his only question is: How long will this take?

Then he's good to go.

He shrugged his shoulders when asked about it, seemingly thinking, "Why not do it?"

"I think it's a good thing," he said between turns at assaulting the defenseless gutters.

You get tired of doing the same thing all the time, why not do something different, he suggested.

"I never get tired of doing that kind of stuff," he said. "It's a fun time."

When he took the ice for his first NHL game more than a decade ago, he couldn't have imagined that someday a family would pay $11,000 for the privilege of bowling a few frames with him. But he also doesn't seem all that amazed that it has turned out this way.

He long ago understood that his considerable talent and his captaincy of a high-profile team would bring responsibilities that would put him in the public eye on a regular basis.

"You just try to be yourself and play as good as you can," he explained.

In the past, Ovechkin has been accused of not caring as much or not being serious enough or having too much fun. But those criticisms have faded to the occasional whisper as he continues to score at a Hall of Fame pace. And his estimation has grown exponentially in the past two seasons with an undisputed commitment to head coach Barry Trotz's systems.

Earlier this season, Ovechkin was a healthy scratch after he overslept and was late for a team function, but he never sulked.

And, oh yeah, a few weeks ago with goal No. 484 he passed former teammate Sergei Fedorov to become the highest-scoring Russian of all time, and in the coming weeks there's a good chance he will become the first Russian to score 500 goals. He's second in team scoring with 12 goals and 11 assists in 24 games. He's tied for 27th in league scoring.

And his team is red hot, with talk that this might finally be the season the Capitals escape their own troubled playoff past and march deep into the playoffs.

"Alex is a great friend," said teammate Laich. "I've played a decade with Alex. I know how proud of a Russian he is and how proud of a person and a competitor and a hockey player he is and I know what that meant to him [to pass Fedorov]."

As for the 500 mark, Laich and other teammates feel that will come and go without as much fanfare.

"I think the 484 will mean more to him than the 500 because he's going to go on, he's going to hit 600, he's going to hit, who knows what he's going to hit," Laich said.

"He's matured. He's got more composure, poise. He doesn't take everything on himself and maybe that's a sign of a better hockey team too, that he doesn't have to put all that pressure on himself and I think it's allowed him to just relax and play. Last year and this year are probably as good as I've ever seen Alex play."

All of which makes watching him ham it up with fans, posing for pictures with bowlers from the adjacent lanes, somehow more impressive.

Galiev, now 23, was a young teenager playing youth hockey for Ovechkin's old club Dynamo in Moscow, when he first met the great Russian star.

Dynamo had won a championship and Ovechkin happened to be in town, so he came in and talked to the boys and posed for pictures.

Hockey heaven.

After the Capitals drafted Galiev 86th overall in 2010, he was coming to his first development camp and Ovechkin called him and invited him to dinner.

"It was a huge honor for me -- Alex Ovechkin is sitting beside me and giving me advice," Galiev recalled with a grin. "It's something I will never forget.

"To be on this team with him and to see this, you're going to remember this for all of your life. And I'll be able to tell my kids I played with Alex Ovechkin."

The first time Kuznetsov, an emerging star with the Capitals, met Ovechkin was at Kuznetsov's wedding. The two had spoken on the phone after the Capitals drafted him 26th overall in 2010 but didn't meet until Kuznetsov suggested Ovechkin, who shared mutual friends, drop in at Kuznetsov's wedding.

"He came to my hometown," the 23-year-old native of Chelyabinsk recalled. "That was a special present for my family and all my friends."

Kuznetsov, like many Russian players, grew up imagining playing in the NHL with stars such as Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Fedorov.

"Sometimes when you go to sleep at night, you imagine maybe you will get a chance to play with them," Kuznetsov said.

Now the dream is reality and Kuznetsov is sharing laughs and ice time with one of his idols.

"You are playing with one of the best players in the world and that's a dream, too," he said.

Orlov's experiences follow a similar pattern.

When he signed his first contract with the Capitals, Ovechkin called. Then as Orlov prepared for his first practice with the Capitals after getting called up from the American Hockey League, Ovechkin called to invite him to dinner.

"It was an amazing time for me," Orlov, 24, said. "It was an unbelievable feeling. I will remember it all my life."

Not long after the bowling gets going in earnest, Ovechkin's fiancée, model Nastya Shubskaya, and a couple of friends arrive. They've brought along hockey sticks to be signed and added to a collection of mementos for the Yi family.

When is the big day? What are the wedding plans?

Oh, there are plans, Ovechkin said. But they are not for sharing. Not yet at least.

He tries to encourage his fiancée to submit to a short interview, but she politely declines.

Whatever the wedding plans might include, Ovechkin hopes the long-term plan includes offspring. Many.

"I want to have as many kids as I can," he said.

What kind of dad would he be?

"I'm probably going to be the happiest dad ever," he said with a smile.

We wouldn't argue with that.

"Time moves forward fast," Ovechkin added, a nod to his age as it relates to his becoming a husband and father, but time also moves fast for a professional hockey player.

He is 30 years old. He doesn't look too far into the future, but his current contract, which goes through the 2019-20 season, acts as a barometer.

How much hockey will he have played by then? How many playoff runs? How will his game change as he gets older?

He makes it clear he doesn't want to hang on too long, to the point that people wonder where his legs or his shot went.

"Depends on how healthy I'm going to be," he said. "I want fans to remember me in a good way."

The bowling has gone well past its scheduled time, but eventually the group gathers its belongings, the Yis with all of their swag and cameras full of images, and heads toward the exit.

Suddenly, a logjam of people.

In an old-style photo booth at the doorway, Ovechkin has gathered Yi's kids for a last-second photo shoot.

"Shenanigans," Yi says with mock exasperation.

Soon the rest of the Russian players take their turn with various family members in the booth before Ovechkin -- gutter ball thrower, bunny suit wearer, bomb robot pilot and arguably the greatest Russian player of all time -- heads off into the night.