It’s rare that a player who perennially wins an NHL trophy surpasses that trophy’s namesake. But Alexander Ovechkin, who has earned six Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophies as the league’s top goal-scorer, will soon overtake Richard’s career mark of 544 goals.
The Russian left winger, who captains the Washington Capitals, currently sits at 532 goals. Told of his impending accomplishment, Ovechkin said: “It’s huge, obviously. My passion is to play as hard as I can and be on those lists.”
At age 31, Ovechkin has joined some very exclusive company. Only Bobby Hull has led the league in goals more times (seven). Like Ovechkin, Phil Esposito did it six times. Richard, Gordie Howe, Charlie Conacher, and Wayne Gretzky turned the trick five times.
Yevgeni Kuznetsov, who frequently centres “The Great 8,” quipped: “Maybe they will rename it the Alex Ovechkin Trophy! It’s always nice when Russian people make history.”
Even though coach Barry Trotz’s priority is to win games now with the Capitals, whom he shepherded to the 2016 President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top regular season team, the 54-year-old Winnipeg native appreciates the historic milestones Ovechkin is achieving.
“Last year when he got his 500th goal, you saw the reaction from our bench,” Trotz recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, if we have to take a two-minute penalty for delay of game, we’ll take it. I don’t care.’ I like the history of the game, and I do recognize those moments. Right now, Alex is in an era where goal-scoring, the last 10 years, has been down. He’s a guy who keeps defying the odds. He’s a generational talent. He may be the greatest goal-scorer of all time. There’s Wayne Gretzky, and those numbers may never get eclipsed. But as a pure goal-scorer, he may be the best.”
Since Braden Holtby became Washington’s starting goalie in 2013, Ovechkin has won the Rocket Richard four years in a row Facing the massive Muscovite daily in practice, Holtby is all too familiar with the secret to his success.
“He’s got a once-in-a-generation type of shot,” said Holtby. “He can shoot anywhere at anything. It comes off weird. You’ve got a 235-pound man with an 80-flex stick with that curve. You don’t see it every day. He’s one-of-a-kind.”
Richard, who died in 2000 at age 78, was likewise unique, but his era and character were very different from Ovechkin's. He was the first player to score 50 goals in 50 games – a feat that Ovechkin deems impossible in today’s game – and to hit the 500-goal mark. He twice potted five goals in one game, while Ovechkin has yet to do that.
During Richard’s 18-year career in the Original Six NHL, he captured eight Stanley Cups with Montreal, but never made more than $50,000 per season. Ovechkin who debuted in 2005-06 as the Calder Trophy winner, has four years left in his 13-year, $124-million contract.
While Ovechkin has been suspended four times in his NHL career, it’s been for reckless play rather than an explosion of temper. Conversely, Richard’s stick-swinging incident with Boston defenceman Hal Laycoe famously led to his suspension for the remainder of the 1954-55 season and playoffs, and sparked the March 17, 1955 “Richard Riot” in which angry, disenfranchised Montreal fans smashed up St. Catherine Street.
Richard got a 10-minute standing ovation when he appeared at the opening of Montreal’s new arena in 1996. That reflected his status as a French-Canadian cultural icon. Innumerable books have been dedicated to his greatness, from Roch Carrier’s children’s classic The Hockey Sweater to literature professor Benoit Melancon’s The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard.
In today’s more commercial age, Ovechkin was made the face of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, appearing in ads for Gillette and Coke and on top Russian TV host Ivan Urgant’s show. Polls indicate he’s more popular than other Russian sports stars like tennis player Maria Sharapova and figure skater Yevgeni Plushenko.
Both Richard and Ovechkin have been lauded for their blazing passion to score and for being, at times, the NHL’s best attacker from the blue line in. If there’s a successor to Ovechkin in the offing, it might be Winnipeg Jets rookie Patrik Laine. The 18-year-old Finn names Ovechkin as a childhood idol, and his scoring on one-timers from the left faceoff bears out that testimony.
“Good for him,” said Ovechkin. “Obviously, he has that skill. He’s a great scorer. He can score 50 or 60 goals if he continues to play like that.”
Ovechkin’s Washington colleagues point to his strong character as a key to his continued success.
“Alex is, to use a basketball analogy, the Michael Jordan of Russia,” said Trotz. “He’s very prideful about his Russian heritage. He’s a family guy. He is very, very honest when you talk to him. He’s not going to beat around the bush a whole lot.”
Kuznetsov, whose friendship with Ovechkin goes beyond the rink, added: “You can see he always is really natural with you if you’re always good with him. You never do something bad behind his back. That’s very important to him. If you are always open and true with him, he will give you something.”
Ovechkin’s lengthy IIHF resume includes three World Championship gold medals (2008, 2012, 2014), but the three-time Olympian is still seeking his first Olympic gold.
“People in Russia know how much he cares about his country – he really does without any irony,” said championat.com writer Alex Govorov. “Otherwise he would not fly to the majority of the IIHF Worlds, sometimes with serious injuries. I talked to him after the World Cup of Hockey semi-final loss to Canada and he was almost crying. There are some controversial things about him, but you cannot fault him for not loving his homeland.”
This season, Ovechkin will also join Sergei Fyodorov, Alexander Mogilny, and Alexei Kovalev as the fourth Russian to record 1,000 NHL points. But whether or not he wins his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy, he’s got his sights set on another goal with the Caps.
“It’s all about the Stanley Cup,” said Ovechkin. “I’ve won lots of trophies and individual awards, the Art Ross, all that stuff. Now I want to win the Cup.”
Trotz added: “Alex’s legacy doesn’t have to be defended in any way, shape or form. Obviously, we’d like to get a Cup in Washington. But a lot of times, stuff is thrown at Alex, like the Sid comparisons, which is really unfair. We want to get a Cup. I think that’s the only missing piece in his resume. The rest is all Hall of Fame.”