Alex Ovechkin has reached the point where he’s setting records he didn’t even realize he was chasing.
He reached his latest milestone when he scored career goal No. 787, setting an NHL record for most goals scored by one player with a single franchise. Gordie Howe held that mark since 1971, scoring 786 goals in 1,687 games with the Detroit Red Wings over 25 seasons.
Ovechkin didn’t know about that record before this season. He didn’t hear about it from a coach or a teammate. He said he saw it on an infographic while scrolling through Instagram.
Mark Howe, Gordie’s son and a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman himself, also didn’t know about the record — neither Ovechkin’s pursuit of it nor the fact that his father held it.
“He basically only had that one year in Hartford and the rest were in Detroit,” Howe said. “I thought maybe it would have been someone else’s record.”
He wasn’t surprised it was Ovechkin to claim the mark.
“It’s [because of] the way that Ovechkin has been scoring, and the pace that he does it. He’s so big, so strong and so powerful,” Howe said.
For Ovechkin, he’s proud to be something else: a Washington Capital. That’s what makes this record a special one for the 37-year-old superstar.
Here’s a look at what this record means for Ovechkin’s Washington sports legacy.
It’s never guaranteed that a star will spend a full career with one NHL franchise. A team’s fortunes change, both on the ice and financially, where the salary cap inevitably plays a role in personnel decisions. A player’s goals change too. Franchise loyalty can’t carry one to a Stanley Cup or through the emotional drain of a rebuild.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Ovechkin are all part of the same generation of stars who still play for the team that drafted them. But look at the Chicago Blackhawks, for example. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane won three Stanley Cups, yet are expected to play for different teams next season as Chicago rebuilds.
“I’m playing hockey with the team that drafted me. So right away, I have a good relationship with the organization and the whole team,” Ovechkin said. “And I’ve found very good friends in D.C. I kind of love it.”
When Ovechkin was drafted first overall in 2004, he didn’t know much about D.C.
“I knew it was the capital of the United States. Basically, that was it,” he said with a laugh.
His arrival in Washington sparked a turnaround for a franchise that had stumbled badly after making the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, including a calamitous attempt to center the Capitals around Jaromir Jagr. Ovechkin was a homegrown star whose electric play and incredible scoring rate transformed the team, on and off the ice. The “Rock the Red” era of the Capitals was born from Ovechkin’s magnetic stardom. His nine scoring titles and three MVPs underscored his impact on their fortunes.
In 2008, Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million contract with the Capitals that accounted for 19% of their salary cap at the time.
“What I admired about Alex is, he never once compared himself and his deal to anybody else,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis told ESPN in August 2021. “He never asked to be traded. He never said fire a coach. It’s just a remarkable personal journey for him.”
Ovechkin said his relationship with Leonsis is one catalyst for his long tenure with the Capitals.
“He was open to me and to my family right away. A great human being. Funny, too,” he said. “He gave me lots of advice and helped me a lot during my career, because there were ups and downs. He was a big part of that success I had mentally, on the ice and off the ice.”
Ovechkin has rarely had ups and downs statistically, scoring over 40 goals in 12 of his 18 seasons. The same couldn’t be said about the Capitals.
There were some crisis-of-conscience seasons for the franchise in the decade before their Stanley Cup breakthrough in 2018. There were first-round playoff exits, criticisms of their style of play and concerns that their “Young Guns” core should be broken up because it couldn’t win. In 2014, The Hockey News went so far as to argue that Ovechkin leaving for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League would be “a blessing in disguise” for Washington: “If he wants to, the last thing the Caps should be doing is persuading him otherwise.”
Was there ever a moment when Ovechkin was worried that he wouldn’t be a Capital at this stage of his career?
“Not really,” he said. “I think the way the relationship between my family and the organization goes, I didn’t even think to be with a different team. But I’ve always said that it’s a business. I don’t know what’s happening upstairs in the office with the GM and the owner. I think any player wants to stay as long as possible with one team.”
When he arrived in the NHL, Ovechkin stayed in Washington, D.C., for his first couple of months before getting a house in Arlington, Va. He and his family eventually settled in McLean, Va., purchasing a home in 2012. He has become part of the community, to the point where he was a man on the street interview for a local TV station while getting gas before a snowstorm.
Ovechkin is considered one of the greatest athletes to ever play professional team sports in D.C. An NBC Sports Washington ranking had him first overall, ahead of Washington football Hall of Famers Darrell Green and John Riggins as well as NBA legend Wes Unseld.
He said he’s enjoyed interacting with Washington’s other sports stars.
“We have a really good relationship with everybody,” he said. “When the Nationals were winning the championship, it was a good moment for D.C. and for each other. Because we supported each other.”
Ovechkin’s relationship with Capitals fans has been endearing. Leonsis credits his star with helping the Capitals become “a top-six or -eight ticket-selling team.”
When he partied with the Stanley Cup, the fans partied with him. Making shirtless “water angels” in a Georgetown fountain. Doing keg stands atop hockey’s holy grail. On stage at The Mall with his teammates, where he addressed the fans: “We’re Stanley Cup champions! It’s yours! Boys and girls and babes! Let’s go!”
While Capitals fans have watched Ovechkin grow up, he said he’s also watched the fans grow up around him, too.
“I’m the oldest player in the organization. I have a couple of friends now who have kids that are like 18 years old,” he said. “I remember them when they were young. And now they’re cheering for us from the stands.”
Ovechkin’s relationship with some local fans became more complicated recently. The Moscow native has been an ardent supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the years. In 2017, he campaigned on behalf of Putin by starting a social media movement called Putin Team, writing, “I never made a secret of my attitude toward our president, always openly supporting him.” His Instagram profile photo features him posing with Putin.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cast that support in a new light for many fans. The Washington Post reported on Capitals fans that were conflicted with their support of Ovechkin and their opposition to the war.
“We’ve seen the Caps fail, and we’ve seen them win … and we’re always rooting for them. It takes away from the entire community, because now we’re divided,” Maryna Baydyuk, a Ukrainian who is president of United Help Ukraine, told the Post in May. “We have fans that say that Ovechkin needs to leave the team. We have fans that are now saying, ‘We don’t know.’ We have fans that are saying we support Ovechkin and the team. Now you have this division.”
Ovechkin decided to hold a press conference this past spring to address those concerns.
“He’s my president. But like I said, I’m not in politics. I’m an athlete. I hope everything is going to be done soon. It’s a hard situation right now for both sides,” Ovechkin said, while attempting to express an anti-war sentiment. “Please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who is in the war — Russia, Ukraine, different countries — we have to live in peace.”
Did he feel that relationship with the fans change due to Russia’s invasion and his support of Putin?
“No. They’re fans. They support the team. I’m with them,” he said in October. “It doesn’t matter which sport. It doesn’t matter who the player is. They support the team, not the player.”
Ovechkin’s current scoring pace has him around the 40-goal mark again. He’s within range of Howe on the all-time NHL goals list, as the Hall of Famer is second overall at 801 goals. Then comes Wayne Gretzky’s mark of 894 goals.
“It’s incredible,” New Jersey Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “To tell you the truth, there are certain guys that have the longevity. When you look at his body mass, how strong he is, you understand why he can play this long.”
Ruff has coached against Ovechkin every season of his career, as a head coach or an assistant coach. He calls the Capitals captain’s goal-scoring remarkable.
“I think the fact that he can sling the puck the way he slings it … he’s got a skill that nobody else has. And he still has that skill at his age,” Ruff said. “I think maybe speed-wise, maybe not quite as fast, but you see that with a lot of players that have been around. You take a Jagr. You take a Chara. They still have that one skill that’s better than any player on their team.”
Does Ovechkin have a favorite goal?
“No, they’re all goals. All my favorites,” he said.
Even the empty-netters?
“Of course. If you think it’s easy to score them, it’s not,” he said. “The other team has a man advantage. They’re putting pressure on you. It’s kind of hard. Sometimes I’m out there and sometimes I’m not. But if I’m out there, my No. 1 priority is not to let the opposite team score.”
Mark Howe believes Ovechkin will eclipse his father’s career goals mark — and that of Gretzky.
“To set these records, you have to have three things,” he said. “Obviously, you have to have a love and a passion to play. Breaking records is one thing, but you play because you love to play the game. Second, Ovi’s strength is scoring. I’ve seen a lot of scorers that put the puck in the net like nobody can, but after a while the puck starts hitting the crest instead of the corner of the net. I haven’t seen that with Ovi yet.”
“And the third thing is that there’s so much money in the game now. Back then, guys had to play to support their families. Some guys now, after a while get satisfied with what they made financially and their drive lets down a little bit. But that hasn’t happened with Ovi.”
Ovechkin signed a five-year, $47 million extension in July 2021 that will keep him in Washington through 2025-26. He said he believes that breaking the records ahead of him will take care of itself as long as he remains focused on his task with the Capitals.
“I have to do my job,” he said. “I have to play well. I have to score goals.”
Additional reporting by ESPN’s Emily Kaplan.