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Hockey's Future
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Author: Dave Molinari (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)Date: 09/06/2004
World Cup Hockey: Ovechkin earns respect, little playing time

Alexander Ovechkin is the centerpiece of Russia's future in international hockey, heir to the legacy of legends such as Valeri Kharlamov, Vladislav Tretiak and Slava Fetisov.

He is only 18, but the same talents and traits that made him a consensus choice as the top player available in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft -- and arguably the most celebrated prospect since Mario Lemieux in 1984 -- convinced Team Russia's management to give Ovechkin a spot on the club's 26-man roster for the World Cup of Hockey tournament.

And Ovechkin's teammates, some of whom were competing internationally by the time his parents began dating, don't seem to resent having a teenager in their traveling party. Especially one who has shown he is worthy of a place on one of the game's greatest stages.

"He's amazing," Team Russia defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said. "This kid is going to be one of the greatest players."

Someday, perhaps. Maybe soon. But Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov doesn't seem convinced just yet, because he made Ovechkin a scratch -- apparently, a healthy one -- for each of Russia's first two games in the tournament.

He finally cracked the lineup last night, and responded by scoring a goal in Russia's 5-2 victory against Slovakia in Toronto.

Ovechkin obviously didn't enjoy having the time off, but hasn't made an issue of it. Not publicly, at least. Instead, he has treated it as a learning experience, even if it has been nothing more than a crash course in humility.

Then again, Ovechkin likely didn't have to make much of an effort to suppress his ego, for while he seems well aware of his abilities, he isn't carried away with them.

His skating and shooting and passing notwithstanding, Ovechkin's most impressive quality might be that, even though he will be all of 19 in 11 days, he realizes he still doesn't know everything about the game. That there is much his teammates can teach him.

"Usually kids like that are cocky, but he's willing to learn everything," Kasparaitis said. "He's asking questions, he's excited. You can see the spark in his eyes."

It looks a lot like the one Ovechkin's teammates have when they discuss his potential.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, as well as Ovechkin, is an alum of Dynamo Moscow in the Russian Super League, so he knew him long before Team Russia reported to training camp a month ago. And he was aware of Ovechkin's promise before all but a handful of scouts and management types from NHL clubs.

"He's got good vision, is good one-on-one and he's strong," Gonchar said. "He's a very good player."

Ovechkin led Dynamo with 13 goals last season, and is projected by many to have an immediate offensive impact in the NHL.

"He has a great shot, and he has confidence in his shot," Kasparaitis said. "He's not afraid to play physical. He looks completely confident."

So do the Washington Capitals, who project that Ovechkin can step directly into the NHL and be productive. The labor dispute that imperils at least part of the 2004-05 season might delay the start of his career in North America, but won't derail it.

Unlike Evgeni Malkin, whom the Penguins claimed with the No. 2 choice in the draft, Ovechkin is intent on playing in the NHL as soon as possible. Although he's prepared to rejoin Dynamo if there's no new collective bargaining agreement in place by Sept. 15, that would strictly be a short-term move.

"After the lockout, I want to play in the NHL," he said.

When he gets there, Ovechkin will find himself competing against guys who are now his teammates, and whom he idolized while growing up. Kasparaitis is one of those, he said. Same with Alexei Yashin and Oleg Tverdovsky.

He speaks respectfully of the men with whom he shares a locker room, and they respond by helping to smooth his transition to this level of play.

"All the guys are helping me," Ovechkin said. "They're nice guys."

And they make up one of the real wild cards in the World Cup field. Russia has enough talent to knock off anyone in the tournament, and will be particularly dangerous if it embraces Ovechkin's what-me-worry philosophy.

"You take the puck, shoot, don't worry about it," he said. "Just play."

And then he smiled. Like a guy who knows he does it better than any teenager on the planet.

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