Ovechkin tightened a hoodie around his ears. His eyes were glassy, his cheeks red. He choked up as a reporter asked him about the impact of his father. “He give me everything, all his health, all his time,” he said. “He travel with me all over the world and been at every practice when he have a chance.”
Most of the Capitals players did not take part in Wednesday’s optional skate, choosing to rest after Tuesday night’s 3-1 loss to Detroit extended the team’s losing streak to five games. It remains unclear if Ovechkin will be ready to return to the lineup for Thursday night’s game at home against Anaheim, but his presence Wednesday lifted the mood for a team that has been spiraling.
He also needed them. Ovechkin smiled and nodded at a few teammates as they joined him in a quiet rink. He laughed along with an assistant coach and waved to a few reporters through the glass. He looked genuinely happy to be back at work.
“It’s a hard situation for my family, but right now, I’m happy I’m back and see all the guys’ smiles,” he said. “It’s kind of like a different atmosphere than it was the last couple of days.”
The Capitals, who have tumbled out of the playoff picture and have been outscored 20-8 over their five-game skid, have struggled to produce offense and capitalize on power-play opportunities without their captain, who leads the team with 32 goals. No other Capitals player is on pace to score more than 20.
“It was felt when he wasn’t here. He’s a big part of the team. He’s our leading point-getter. He’s our leading goal scorer. He’s the captain of the team,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’s his love for the game that shines through in the locker room and it’s a big body and a big presence coming back in our lineup. So we’re certainly happy to have him back.”
The organization honored Mikhail Ovechkin with a moment of silence before last Thursday’s home game against the Florida Panthers. Ovechkin remained in touch with his teammates during his absence — he spoke to the team the day before he left the country and sent a supportive text message to the group ahead of their 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes this past Saturday, an outdoor game in Raleigh, N.C.
Washington suffered more attrition in Tuesday night’s 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, when forward Anthony Mantha left the game with an upper-body injury. But the return of Ovechkin will boost a lineup that has recently added back some key players ahead of the final stretch of the season. Forward Tom Wilson, who missed eight games with a lower-body injury has returned, as has center Nic Dowd, who had been sidelined for the past 12 games with a lower-body injury.
Ovechkin skated once in Russia last week, he said, but he didn’t conduct drills until he returned on Wednesday. It felt like a training camp for the 37-year-old, and by the end of the session, he took a knee at center ice. He was winded. He expects an adjustment period as he climbs back into playing shape.
I just want to come back right away, put my mind in a different position,” he said. “We’re struggling right now, so I just want to try to do my best to bring energy, bring something to the team.”
As he met with reporters Wednesday, Ovechkin thanked the organization and fans for their support for his family — he expects his mother and brother to travel to the U.S. to stay with him soon. He expressed gratitude that he was able to say goodbye before he passed away. “It’s a good thing right now we have video, because lots of my friends who lost their fathers, they don’t have cellphones back then,” he said.
Alex Ovechkin continued to recall fond memories of his father. He remembered all of the sacrifices that had been made for his career. He remembered celebrating the Stanley Cup together in Moscow in 2018 — “The best moment of my life with him,” Ovechkin said — and remembered Mikhail Ovechkin’s sense of humor. Those memories were carrying him as he returned to hockey this week.
“The people [who] know him, they’re going to miss his smile,” he said. “They’re going to miss his energy.”