Alex Ovechkin was one of the most outgoing of the Russians. He always said hello with a crooked smile and asked about me and my Easton equipment. He was known to dress a bit garishly, when not in the NHL mandated travel suit and tie, and caught some flak from his mates because of it: His white apres-ski boots and fur coat ensemble were a highlight.
Beyond the big personality, he was a considerate guy. I witnessed this a few times. I was there late after practice one day helping assemble some of our new helmets with shields and team logos, and someone comes in and says “Ovy bought lunch.” We walked into the team lounge area, with couches and TV’s and Ping-Pong tables, and there was a spread of Sushi and Asian foods that could feed three teams. Apparently, he gave his black Amex card to someone and told them to get something good to eat.
Another time, I walk into practice early, and Ovy is being measured in the hall by a small Frenchman. This was his suit guy. Yes, the guy would fly in to tailor Ovy. I didn’t get a price, but I imagine it was high. With the little fellow down around Ovy’s crotch area, a low-level assistant coach walked by: “Get a room,” the assistant coach joked. Ovy laughed and called him over. “You want a suit?” he asks. The lower-level assistants weren’t paid too much, and did the job more for the experience and the love of the game. The guy probably only had a couple of Men’s Warehouse specials.
“No, I’m okay,” said the assistant, looking at the garishly colored pin-striped number that Ovy was being fitted for. “You need a suit!” Ovy declared. “Okay, okay, as long as it’s not in that ugly pin-stripe,” joked the assistant.
Just like the suit maker, when Ovechkin asked us to make some custom sticks for him, we tailored them to his specific taste, and we hand-delivered them. For most players we’d make two sample sticks, and not always hand-deliver. For Ovechkin we did six, and two of us hand-delivered them.
My plant boss, Mac, and I arrived the evening before and sat down to dinner. We had steak and a bottle of good wine as a kind of pre-celebration. “Do you realize how big this is?” said Mac. “If we can get Ovechkin to like our stick enough that he drops his contract with CCM…. Huge.” This was potentially so big, we didn’t even have to share a hotel room to cut expenses.
That night, from the towel-dimmed light of my hotel room desk, I emailed the Capitals equipment manager Brock, just to reconfirm that the eagle had landed and we would see them in the morning.
We got a few looks, lugging the six sticks across the hotel lobby in the bulky long bag out to our cab. The driver reached down to help with the bag, but Mac held it tight. “This stays with me,” he said, fearful the cabbie might slam a trunk on them. Mac put the stick bag through the middle of the cab and we made our way to the rink.
Once there, we waited impatiently for the players to roll in. We were just inside the rope, where autograph-seekers stood to get a quick look at their heroes. Suddenly, people started shouting; “Ovy, Ovy!” He smiled at us before going over to engage with his fans.
Walking back toward the locker room, he brought us with him. “So, what you got?” he asked. Mac opened the bag and proudly pulled out the black, silver and blue Easton S17 sticks. “Now, the colors can obviously be changed to whatever you want,” said Mac, knowing we were in red, white and blue territory here. “I’m not worried about that,” said Ovechkin. “I just want to see how they play.” As he twirled the blade in the air and took it to the ground to feel the flex on the shaft, there was a slight cracking sound. He looked up at us with a raised eyebrow. “Just the materials settling,” Mac quickly affirmed.
About a half-hour later, Mac and I stood along the boards and watched as Ovechkin took the ice with our stick. After some warm-ups, the team got into a passing and shooting drill: A line of players in each corner; one corner guy skates around past the blue line and comes back in to catch a pass from the opposite corner guy and shoots on the goalie.
Ovechkin’s turn, and he swoops around, grabs a quick pass from the corner, flicks his wrists to take a snapshot… and breaks the Plexiglass behind the goaltender’s head. Mac and I looked at each other and high-fived. We couldn’t believe it. I mean, the power our stick had in Ovy’s hands was out of this world. The shot was from almost 60 feet away. And a snapshot to boot!
For the next 15 minutes or so, we watched as Ovy tried to control the puck better. He bobbled a few passes, but hey, he bobbled passes with his CCM stick too—it was his shot that was his money-maker. A few minutes later, he put the Easton stick down and grabbed one of his old CCM’s…. And that was it.
“We made him a Ferrari and he wanted a BMW,” Mac analogized later over beers. “Well, can we soften it up a little, make him a hybrid of the two?” I asked. “Even if we did Kirky, you usually only get one chance with these guys.”
And he was right. The only thing I got out of the whole ordeal was an Ovechkin custom sample stick for myself, and a story to tell.