[As promised, here is the full course meal hinted at by our appetizer the other day. This full interview by Slava Malamud with Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin appears in today's issue of Sport-Express. Bon Appetit.]
Ordered to be Angry
Slava Malamud, Arlington
Ordered to be angry. Strongly recommended to fret and fume. The question of when to bang your head against the wall, however, requires further study. And to drive home the official theme of the coming season to the Washington players (who have just returned from their vacations), the club gave them all t-shirts to wear under their uniforms. The back of the shirt is inscribed with the motto "Stay Angry". You could translate it as angry, aggrieved, frustrated, but best of all-vicious. This year Washington plans to capture the Stanley Cup through this, the most powerful, passionate, and dynamic of human emotions.
Last season, by the way, the saying on the shirts was a bit more solemn- "Get Ready". Ready for victory in the Stanley Cup. But since the Caps preparedness wasn't on a boy-scout level, all that is left now is to nurse the anger within.
They have plenty of reasons to snarl and paw at the ground with their hooves. Last year's regular season turned into one long coronation process, at the end of which they flew, accompanied by great pomp and circumstance, headfirst into a brick wall. The wall, as often happens in life, proved to be harder than the forehead, and team management came to the realization that what they needed was a strong dose of Dr. Jekyll's formula. So here come the players walking around Kettler, and the spine of each of them encouraging his teammate to gather up the noble rage. Perhaps with such a mindset the next round will end in favor of the forehead.
But anger is a purely personal matter, and not everyone is ready to bring it forth. Washington fans, for example, are insanely happy with the return of their darlings and are bursting through the doors of Kettler like maniacs, just to watch them practice.
SEMIN: SO WHAT IF I'M TRADED?
Under the roar of the huge crowd and to the appreciative tapping of sticks by his teammates on the boards, Alexander Ovechkin scored a goal. Right off the faceoff, a quick shot underneath his opponent. Team A widened the score differential....
The first few days of Washington's training camp at the ice complex weren't overcrowded. On Saturday, however, it was hard to even breath: so many people came to see the first training session of Ovechkin and his teammates that a large number of them had no other choice but to wait outside and lay in wait for their idols in the parking lot. Washington was divided up into three teams, and played for the traditional Duchesne Cup, named in honor of a former Capital. Ovechkin's A-Team was plowing in fine form on its first outing.
The thing is, Ovechkin and his partner (he's such a good friend he shares his name) Alexander Semin either aren't able to get mad or they get mad in their own peculiar way, because both of them returned to the nation's capital well rested, physically prepared, mentally stabilized-and not so terribly angry. In any case, at least not in front of the press. They didn't growl into the cameras and they didn't chew into the microphones.
As for Semin, whose group only trained on this day, he was simply tired. Head coach Bruce Boudreau ran the guys through a full session of suicides, where Alexander leapfrogged the long-legged Czech Tomas Fleischmann without any apparent difficulty.
It seems you came to camp in good shape.
"I just rested all summer, I didn't train. And now it seems I didn't rest that much."
As opposed to Ovechkin, who never left the headlines.
"Yeah, not a chance! You see I spent all summer at home in Siberia. Okay, I went with Sanya to Turkey, and it was fun, what all was there. You could tell it with Sanya. In Moscow his life is such that he can't get away. No matter where he goes... But I sat quietly at home near Krasnoyarsk, on the lake."
Were the fish biting?
"Not really, for some reason they weren't biting this year. The weather was bad. We had only about two weeks of hot weather all summer, and the rest of it was rain or overcast. Although it seems to me that it was better than the heat that the rest of Russia had."
And so, were you able to come here angry, as commanded by the shirt?
"And what reason is there to be angry now? We just finished the first training session. I've already forgotten about that season. Even if you threatened to kill me I couldn't remember anything. I remember it was good-until the playoffs. In the playoffs we weren't able to win. So the team will learn from the defeat."
And what did you learn from it?
"I don't know. Something wasn't working for me at that time. I was probably fixated on something."
Did the affair with the Olympics bother you greatly?
"Maybe, but why talk about this now?"
So what would you say to the idea that you are not a "cup" player?
"Yeah, let them say what they want. I think that a player has to be a player at all times-in the regular season or in the playoffs. But everything in life can happen to a person: something doesn't go right here, some bad luck happens there. Why should you change something about yourself? I don't understand how that is possible-to play one way in the regular season and an entirely different way in the playoffs."
But isn't playoff hockey different?
"Yes, you just have to play a bit more carefully, don't allow yourself to do any tricks, don't fuss about so much, and understand that everything can be decided by one puck."
This is a contract season for you. You will become an unrestricted free agent. This means that the most important contract in your life is looming ahead...
"More than anything, this is a stimulus to play as well as possible. And I'll be playing the same as I always do. I think I did pretty well last season: I did good on assists, and everything was in order with my goals. So I'll continue this way. But as far as starting to drive into my head that they say I need to score or assist more this year...This isn't tennis, where you play all by yourself. The way that you play with your partners is the way they will play with you."
You have to convince the club that you are worth a new contract. Or they might trade you somewhere..
"I can't climb inside my bosses' heads". How am I to know what they are thinking? And even if I did-what then? I'd finish out the season someplace and I'd still be a free agent. What could I do? Not go and beg "please don't trade me!"?
Ilya Kovalchuk turned down big money from Russia this summer in order to stay in the NHL, because he wanted play here. Will you look at both leagues as equals?
"I like it here better. I've been here five years already and am used to everything. It's comfortable here."
You give the impression of a deeply Russian person.
"Well yeah, you can get used to anything. I'll just say that if I didn't like it here, I wouldn't be playing here. I would have left for Russia a long time ago."
At the draft this year Washington picked Evgeny Kuznetsov, who remembers you from Chelyabinsk..
"Yeah? What year was he? 92? To be honest, I don't remember him. There were a lot of guys back then."
Meanwhile, his playing style looks a lot like you. His qualities and his shortcomings are also noted as the same. Maybe Washington is preparing a replacement for you?
"Well there isn't any such thing as two identical players. As for a replacement, again it's simply better for me to not think about it. Let the managers figure it out. They don't consult with me."
MCPHEE: WE DON'T EXPECT ANY EVIDENCE FROM SEMIN
By the way, what do manager think? With this question it is best to turn directly to the fountainhead, and as luck would have it the head of the club Duma, George McPhee, also came out to speak to the press.
"We all know what a great talent he is, and we are expecting him to have an outstanding season" said McPhee. "Well, an evaluation of his contract situation will be given at a later date. Of course it does happen sometimes that a new contract is signed during the course of the season, but to a great extent that depends upon the players themselves."
Does Semin need to prove to you that he is a good "cup" hockey player?
"No. He played outstanding during the playoffs last season. The fact that the puck didn't make it into the net does not mean that he played poorly. He made 44 shots on goal! I don't think there was a single player in the entire league that made as many shots in a single series of those playoffs. No, he doesn't have to prove us anything."
If there is anyone with something to prove, then it's goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who almost certainly will have to compete against the Czech Michal Neuvirth all season long for the first place position. Not a single expert is ready to risk guessing the outcome of this race, although Varlamov with his experience and impressive physique should probably be the favorite. If only this physique doesn't break down again. For the past two seasons Semyon has had to fight off more injuries than goals.
So far, Varlamov is in his routine of preparing and tuning up his equipment. Ice, net, outfit-to get the feel for all this and fall into the necessary rhythm takes some time. It's a goaltender thing, mortals won't understand. Not to mention such an important issue as the choice of a mask. In the coming days Semyon has promised to finalize a new design for his headgear and said that right now he is leaning towards a design which is mostly made up of Washington themes.
"I want the fans to be happy" modestly confessed Varlamov. Basically it is difficult to image him offering the fans any negative emotions.
OVECHKIN: I WILL NOT CHANGE
But Ovechkin, of course, doesn't need to prove anything to anybody. For right now, at least. In the aforementioned scrimmage for the team's Duchesne Cup he was, by the way, given the opportunity to prove that he could play the position of center forward. This is how it happened: team A had only 11 forwards, so somebody had to fill in the gaps. Ovechkin coped with his new role... let's just say with varying success.
"I was a little surprised when they told me I had to play center" said Alexander. "Hmm, okay I said. Well, it was okay-I won a faceoff. I just didn't play much in the offense zone."
Surely it was a major event for Nikita Kashirsky and Stanislav Galiev to go out on the ice with you.
"Both are great players and they have good futures ahead of them."
The last time you played with Kashirsky was probably when you were on the youth league.
"Yeah, we were something like 15 years old. Since then he's gotten a lot stronger. It's not for nothing that recently several guys were let go and he still remains. The main thing is to keep working."
What was the more important thing for you during the offseason-forgetting about the disappointments or energizing a rage within yourself?
"Yeah so what kind of anger could there be? We lost and we are moving forward. Last season was difficult: we lost everything-the Olympics, the Stanley Cup, the World Championship. Such is life. Yes, it is a shame that we lost the Olympics-that's only once every four years, darn it. But that's a reason to work harder, especially since the next Olympics will be in Sochi, in our own backyard."
Meanwhile, the t-shirt is calling for anger.
"And that's written the way it should be. In the summertime the most important thing is to escape from hockey and relax, and now once again we have a new mission: to win."
You burned through your summer. You were always in the newspapers...
"Yellow newspapers! Yellow!"
And this doesn't bother you? Maybe you should have gone to Siberia with Semin?
"To get lost in the taiga or what? Sema's a local boy, he knows all the paths and shortcuts, and what would I do there? I'd get lost."
Do you have to put up with constant attention to yourself?
"You have to deal with this in the right way. Only idiots are interested in the yellow press and paparazzi that lurk for you in different places. Normal people are only interested in me in sports news. I had a difficult season, and I needed to rest and not worry about somebody writing something about it."
Last year in addition to everything else you had two suspensions. Do you need to change something in your game?
"In fact, I don't need to change anything, but simply to progress. To play better in such situations. I play the way I play, and I'm not going to change anything."
Alright, confess-how many goals are you going to make this year?
"I'm not going to tell!"
Well can you at least guarantee fifty?
"No way. I have a different objective. To win."