First torchbearer Yiannis Antoniou relays the flame to second torchbearer Alexander Ovechkin of Russia outside the Pierre de Coubertin monument during the torch relay September 29, 2013 in Olympia, Greece. (Photo by Dimitri Messinis-Pool/Getty Images)
The NHL opened its season on the NBC Sports Network on Tuesday, and fans got an early look at two top Olympians doing what they do best.
Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Chicago's Patrick Kane scored just 24 seconds apart in the first period of an entertaining affair that the Blackhawks eventually won, 6-4. Ovechkin and Kane are expected to be the main firepower for their respective squads in the Sochi Games -- Ovi for Team Russia and Kane for Team USA.
There was concern among Capitals fans that Ovi wouldn't have the normal spring in his step after traveling to Greece to participate in the first leg of the Olympic torch run. But the trip to Greece and back didn't seem to stall the Great 8's motor. He played the most minutes (22:13) among any forward on the ice, fired nine shots on Hawks goalie Corey Crawford (who will be vying for a spot on the Canadian Olympic roster) and recorded an assist to go along with his power-play tally.
Kane, meanwhile, let five shots fly on another potential Team Canada goalie, Braden Holtby. While Team USA will perhaps have the fastest team on ice in Sochi, they will be counting on Kane to be a leader in the scoring department. So you can bet that Team USA's front office will be keeping tabs on Chicago scoresheets through the first half of the NHL season to make sure Kaner stays hot.
Run, Ovi, Run
There's no question the pressure will only get more intense for Ovechkin as the 2014 Games get closer. Ovi's the face of the Olympics in Russia, and with his home country hosting the Games, anything less than a gold medal will be considered a disappointment.
Unfortunately, the Russian international program has slumped lately, and getting a medal of any kind in Sochi will be no easy task. Sure, the home crowd will help energize the players, but Ovechkin and Co. will have to contend with the likes of Canada, which won gold in 2010, the U.S., which saw gold slip under Ryan Miller's pad in overtime of the final game, as well as another international powerhouse, Sweden. Don't count out those pesky Finns, either. They seem to always find a way to push their way into medal contention.
With all of that said, Ovechkin will try his best to put the pressure to the side and flash that gap-toothed grin during every Olympic promo opportunity that presents itself in the coming months. Running with the Olympic torch was no exception.
He skipped his team's final preseason game in Chicago to head to Olympia, Greece, to participate in the historic event. He was the first Russian to run with the flame, having received the handoff from an alpine skier from Greece. Ovi and the skier were dressed in full winter gear, including fancy toques, while everyone around them were in shorts and T-shirts. But the staged event still looked cool for the fans back home in Russia.
Ovechkin, who dishes out more exclamation points on Twitter than hits on the ice, tweeted some video Monday of his time in Greece:
— Alex Ovechkin (@ovi8) October 2, 2013
NPR's Gotcha Moment
So Ovechkin has to not only worry about winning a gold medal on home ice on the world's biggest stage and playing the good host to the rest of the world, but he also has to deal with politics off the ice. We're not talking about the federal government shutdown just down the street from Ovi's home rink in D.C., but instead the political turmoil that has gained momentum surrounding Russia's anti-gay initiatives.
For those who have covered the Caps, it's well known that when Ovi talks to the media, there's almost always a member of the Capitals' media relations staff just feet away, listening in on all the questions reporters ask. They're there to keep an eye on how interviews are conducted and to cut things off when all Ovi wants to do is finish undressing and get out of the rink.
And when a national media outlet like NPR wants to ask Ovi questions about Russia's policies on gay athletes, they kindly ask the press to save those questions for another time. That wasn't the answer NPR Morning Edition host David Greene wanted to hear, apparently. So when he recently grabbed some time with Ovechkin to discuss the Winter Olympics, he disobeyed orders and asked anyway.
Greene's question: There has been some criticism from athletes from around the world about Russia's new anti-homosexual laws. Some gay athletes have said they're worried they might face discrimination or even be arrested at the games. Do they have a reason to be worried?
Ovi deflected the question to the best of his ability, saying no, he doesn't think so, and then adding, "To be honest with you, man, it's just a situation when people there have rights. And I'm just hockey player. I'm just support everybody and everybody have their own mind."
Those who have covered the Caps also know that Ovi isn't the greatest of quotes in English to begin with, so they weren't expecting a political discourse while waiting for this answer.
How Ovechkin, who has been treated with kid gloves by D.C. media through the years, handles the pressure of leading his Caps during the regular season while also handling the anticipation of the Winter Olympics (and any off-ice policy questions) will be something to keep an eye on as Sochi approaches.