Last man standing: why Alex Ovechkin stays in D.C.


Greer Vermilye

Ovechkin is the last of the great D.C. sports stars, and for a reason.

By Andrew Audas

During the past decade, Washington has been home to some of the most captivating names in sports: Robert Griffin III was the 2012 NFL offensive rookie of the year, Bryce Harper was the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year and the 2015 National League MVP, and Alex Ovechkin brought his team to a Stanley Cup victory. Other athletes, such as John Wall of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and Jordan Zimmermann of the MLB’s Washington Nationals, have also garnered fame through success in their respective sports. Yet, over the past few years, most of this generation’s D.C. sports icons have left Washington — except Ovechkin.

Since entering the NHL in 2005, Ovechkin has remained one of the most reliable athletes in sports, with 706 goals (the eighth most of all time), 572 assists, an assortment of individual trophies, and, most importantly, a coveted Stanley Cup title. He has played 1152 games with the Capitals, only missing 31 games throughout his career. Ovechkin’s statistics have earned him high regard in the hockey community; some even view him as the best goal scorer in the history of the league.

“He is definitely one of the greatest players of this generation,” Senior and Whitman ice hockey player Rainer Baker said. “He is one of the faces of the NHL, and the most popular face in DC sports after Harper left.”

When Washington drafted Ovechkin more than a decade ago, they were among the worst teams in the NHL. Then Capitals General Manager George McPhee used the plucky Russian superstar’s abilities to turn the team’s fortunes around. McPhee went on to acquire supporting players shortly thereafter, such as Nicklas Backstrom in 2006, and convinced Ovechkin to stay with the organization. In addition to his improving supporting cast, Ovechkin admitted he stayed with the Capitals for reasons beyond a path to the Stanley Cup; he also enjoyed his influence with fans.

Washington sports fans revere Ovechkin for, among his other accolades, delivering the Capitals their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history.

“The Capitals have legitimacy every time you talk about them since they have a superstar,” Science teacher Peyton Ford said. “I think there are certain players that don’t have any enemies [among Washington sports fans] and Ovechkin’s one of them.”

Most of the city’s past athletic darlings have suffered career-breaking challenges: Griffin III was cut from the Washington Football Team in 2016 after a career riddled with injuries, Harper left the Nationals in the 2018 offseason over contract disputes and Wall was traded from the Wizards because his athletic ability never met the heights of his salary.

Though Ovechkin’s career has still faced obstacles, none were drastic enough to make him leave the Caps. 

“He never gave up,” senior Andrew Warner said. “Every loss motivated him for the next year and he eventually just reached the point where he broke through.”

There was discussion about trading Ovechkin in 2017 after he suffered his third playoff series loss to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. But the next season he silenced doubters as he won yet another Rocket Richard trophy (awarded to the NHL’s most prolific goal scorer) and scored 89 points. 

Heading into the 2017-2018 season, Ovechkin famously said “we’re not going to be suck [sic] this year.” The Capitals reached the postseason and defeated the hated Penguins in six games en route to the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin scored 15 goals during the playoffs and won the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP.

After the 2021 NHL season, Ovechkin will enter free agency. He has stated that he wants to play in Washington as long as possible, then finish his career in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s top professional ice hockey league where Ovechkin began his career. If he plays for the Capitals for five more years, Ovechkin will need to only average 31.3 goals per season to become the NHL’s all time leading goal scorer — which is well within his range. He was the fastest in NHL history to move from 600 to 700 career goals, averaging 47 goals per season. It is likely that, as long as Ovechkin remains healthy, D.C. fans will see him become the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer.

“He is such an influential athlete, if you go around Whitman and ask people to name 10 hockey players, almost everybody will name Ovechkin,” Warner said. “He is a legend around Washington and he made Washington relevant.”