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Rambler's Top100

30 октября 2003 года.
NHL waits for Russian prospect, regarded as lock for No. 1 pick

New York Daily News

MOSCOW - On the banks of the Moscow River, a slap shot off a boulevard called Komsomolski Prospekt, the best young hockey prospect in the world is wearing a blue and white uniform and carrying the puck behind the net, an opposing defenseman draped all over him.

The kid is 18, a 6-2, 200-pound right wing. His name is Alexander Ovechkin, and he is big and strong and fast, and sheds the defender as easily as if he were taking off his coat. He powers in front, wrists the puck into the low corner, scores. At one end of a pale yellow shoebox of an arena called Luzhyniki, teammates mob him, and fans of his first-place team, Dynamo Moscow, roar in delight.

Soon enough, Dynamo has an overtime victory over Metallurg Magnitogorsk, its rival in the Russian Super League, and Ovechkin has his hands full, literally. In one hand is a gift box, his prize for being the No. 1 star of the game. In the other is a bundle of sticks that he must carry off the ice, his reward for being the youngest player on the team - a role he fills uncomplainingly.

Life is indeed bounteous these days for Alex Ovechkin, a kid who is almost everybody's lock to be the No. 1 pick at the NHL draft beginning June 25, and it is not much less so for the league he currently plays in.

While the biggest money and greatest competition remains unquestionably in the NHL, the Super League, not unlike Russia itself, is a fascinating capitalistic work in progress, a place that's increasingly tugging Russian players home, doing it with nationalistic fervor and suddenly major-league salaries.

There is a swanky gated community on the fringes of Moscow. There's a TGI Friday's a short distance from the Kremlin, and so many cars - 3 million by one count - that most intersections are maddening exercises in gridlock. An IKEA has opened up and coffee bars keep turning up everywhere, a retail presence that's becoming almost as common as the fresh-flower kiosks that seem to be on every Moscovian street corner - a splash of country and color in an otherwise gray and grimy cityscape.

Why shouldn't perestroika and the unchained forces of a free-market economy move into sports, too? Roman Abramovich, a 36-year-old orphan-turned-billionaire, bought the Chelsea Football Club in Great Britain over the summer (the British tabloids wasted little time in nicknaming the team Chelski), and last month was reportedly negotiating to purchase the Vancouver Canucks.

Over a recent lunch in a hotel restaurant in Moscow, Sergei Makarov rubs his thumb and index fingers together, and smiles. "It's all about money," says Makarov, the former star of the Soviet national team and the NHL, who now works under Slava Fetisov, Russian legend and Hockey Hall of Famer, in Russia's Ministry of Sport. "People who have lots of money are investing in the sport. There a lot of good sponsors, very rich owners. I believe it is now the second-best hockey league in the world."

David Conti is the director of scouting for the New Jersey Devils, a man who has been to Russia more than 50 times over the last two decades. Conti sees dramatic changes since the days when the entire Soviet hockey program was nothing but "a propaganda piece" to promote Communist ideology.

"It's a competitive league now rather than just a feeder system of the national team," Conti says. "It's much more economically driven. There were some troubles in the first few years of perestroika, but there seem to be more resources now that are making it better all the time. It's a strong, viable league."

In the last few years, nearly 25 Russian NHL players have returned to their homeland to play. Former Devils defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky is but one example, having signed with Avangard Omsk last August. Sergei Nemchinov (39) - a former Ranger, Islander and Devil - returned home to play for Locomotiv Jaroslavl, an emergent power with the best and newest stadium in the country, as did Andrei Kovalenko.

More and more, Russian players are having clauses written into their contracts that if they don't make the NHL club, they have the right to return to Russia.

"Players come back for different reasons," Nemchinov says, standing outside the Locomotiv locker room before a recent practice. "For some it is money. For others it is the family, or (just wanting) to be back home. It has been (a good decision) for me."

Nemchinov reportedly got a deal worth $600,000 annually, vastly more than he likely would've gotten from an NHL club. Six-figure salaries are common now in Russia, a comfortable wage that is better still when you factor in that the top income tax bracket in the country is 13 percent.

"I would be more than happy to pay my taxes there instead of here," says Igor Larionov, the Devils' 42-year-old center who is among the top players ever to come out of Russia.

A four-time world champion, two-time Olympic champion and the top player in the Soviet Union in 1987-88, Larionov had $5,000 in the bank before he followed Fetisov and Alexander Mogilny to the NHL in 1989. "When I came to Vancouver I was driving a Honda Civic," he says. "Now (Russia) is the second-highest-paid hockey league in the world."

The growing number of Russians returning to the motherland does not include the NHL's front-line talents, nor is it expected to. As the Rangers' Alexei Kovalev notes, "For the top, top players, if they feel they can stay on an NHL team, they'll definitely stay because it's a different level, a better level of hockey."

Of course, if the looming collective-bargaining impasse short-circuits the 2004-2005 NHL season, Jay Grossman, the agent for Nemchinov, Brian Leetch and Atlanta Thrashers winger Ilya Kovalchuk, believes it may not only be Russian players who are looking toward the Super League.

"I think you'll see North American players go there and play," Grossman says. "And it gets real interesting when that street starts flowing in the other direction.

"I think they can accommodate a large number of players (in Russia). I don't think they're prepared to compete with the NHL, but they're in a dogfight for the survival of their league as a top league."

The impact of the Russians who have already returned has been far-reaching, according to Russian hockey players and officials. Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, coach of Dynamo Moscow and another former Soviet national team standout, says that competition top to bottom in the 16-team Super League is far tougher than the old days, when most of the talent was cherry-picked by CSKA, or Central Red Army, and Dynamo.

Beyond that, the renaissance has halted the sense of impending doom that hung over Russian hockey in the early `90s, when the economy was a wreck, the state-run system was extinct and top players were fleeing like stick-toting refugees, not just for the NHL or AHL, but leagues all over Europe.

The return of native talent has given young players heroes to emulate, and stars to admire.

"I remember eight or 10 years ago everybody said, `Russian hockey is dead; there's no more talent coming up because everybody is leaving,'" says Boris Mironov, who had discussions with three Russian clubs before re-signing with the Rangers last month. "But right now it's come back."

Bilyaletdinov says the influx of money - most of it from so-called oligarchs who have made their millions by taking over the state-owned oil and aluminum industries (Siberia has the world's biggest oil reserves outside of Saudi Arabia) - has also resulted in a dramatic improvement in facilities and equipment.

When hockey was strictly a state-run enterprise, the funds were there for the national team program, but didn't go much further.

"Now there are 10 practice arenas in Moscow. Before we had nothing," Bilyaletdinov says. "I can't tell you know how many kids now want to play hockey."

Soccer remains Russia's most popular sport, but a decade removed from its nadir, hockey suddenly seems as strong and vital as a Kremlin wall. Look no further than how next year's draft is sizing up. According to Tony Feltrin, director of scouting for the Islanders, Ovechkin and countryman Evgeny Malkin both figure to go in the top five.

Feltrin estimates that 20 Russians will be taken in the first three rounds.

"We still view it as a tremendous source of talent," Feltrin says.

Ovechkin remains the most coveted of the talent, to the point that the Florida Panthers attempted to draft him last summer, no matter that he wouldn't turn 18 until Sept.17 - two days too late to be draft-eligible. The Panthers argued that he actually was eligible, since there have been four leap years since he was born.

The NHL disagreed.

Ovechkin seems to have the ideal athletic stock to use his abundant gifts well. His mother, Tatiana Ovechkina, was a two-time Olympic basketball champion and is now the coach of the Dynamo women's basketball team. She and her husband, Mikhail, are at every game Alex plays.

"Always, I feel their support," Ovechkin says. "When a game starts, I always look at the stands to find them."

Ovechkin started playing with a plastic stick and puck at age 2, and was in a hockey school at seven. He was introduced to the sport by his older brother, Sergei, who died in an auto accident several years ago. Alex prefers not to talk about the tragedy, though he has talked occasionally in the past about how he thinks of his brother every time he comes out on the ice, where he regular wows people not just with his strength and skill, but his vision and selflessness.

"He's a rare find," says Conti of the Devils.

Alex Ovechkin, No. 1 draft pick in waiting, figures to find his fame and fortune at some NHL precinct or another, but is thoroughly content for now to be the poster boy for hockey prosperity in Russia, and to be playing in a league that has not just survived the fall of communism, but has flourished because of it.

"Right now I don't think of the NHL and the NHL entry draft," Alex Ovechkin says. "Now all my thoughts are to help Dynamo Moscow get the Russian Super League title."

Страничка Александра Овечкина на сайте "Звёзды с Востока"


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31 октября. Форвард «Вашингтона» Александр Овечкин: Я стал Крюгером // "Советский Спорт"

25 октября. Александр Овечкин - любитель хип-хопа, рваных джинсов и маминых пельменей // "Спорт-Экспресс"

24 октября. Форвард «Вашингтона» Александр Овечкин: Не бывает вечных серий // "Советский Спорт"

20 октября. Первый рекорд Овечкина. 

18 октября. Александр Овечкин: "Мы не фавориты - это минус, но у нас все впереди - это плюс" // "Футбол.Хоккей"

6 октября. Александр Овечкин: "А в России говорили, что я - мягкая игрушка". // "Спорт-Экспресс"

5 октября. Овечкин сдержал обещание – забил в своем первом матче. 

30 сентября. Овечкин разразился «хет-триком» против команды Кросби.

21 сентября. Дебют Овечкина в «Вашингтоне» - удаление на 26-й секунде, гол в серии буллитов. 

12 сентября. Форвард «Вашингтона» Александр Овечкин: Живу в доме генерального менеджера «Вашингтона» - Советский Спорт

2 сентября. Ovechkin wants to fit in quickly - Washinton Times

31 августа. Овечкин официально подписал контракт с «Вашингтоном».



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