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Ovechkin seeks belated team success

Nov 23, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Washington Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin (8) warms up before playing against the Toronto Maple Leaf
Nov 23, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Washington Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin (8) warms up before playing against the Toronto Maple Leaf

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - For all the riches Alex Ovechkin has accumulated during a glittering ice hockey career, a gold medal and a coveted silver bowl remain firmly beyond the Russian sniper's grasp.

With a trophy case laden with individual honors, including three Hart trophies as the NHL's most valuable player, and a $124 million contract with the Washington Capitals, Ovechkin would seem to have plenty to be pleased about.

For all his considerable personal accomplishments, wealth and good fortune, however, his Hall of Fame resume is incomplete, having yet to take his team or country to championship glory.

As the 28-year-old prepares to lead the Russian men's ice hockey team into battle at the Sochi Winter Games, Ovechkin understands better than most what an Olympic gold medal means to his home land.

His mother, Tatiana Ovechkina, an ex-Soviet Russian basketball player, has two Olympic gold medals while Maria Kirilenko, his tennis-playing girlfriend, also knows her way to the podium, capturing a bronze at the 2012 London Summer Games.

Even Ovechkin's great rival, Pittsburgh Penguins and Canada captain Sidney Crosby, had ticked an Olympic gold and a Stanley Cup off his to-do list by the time he was 22.

"Of course, we talk about it," Ovechkin told Reuters. "She (his mother) has some memories but back then, it was two different countries.

"The USSR and Russia are two different countries. It's different. It was Communist back then."

Taken with the number one overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft by the Capitals, Ovechkin has scored 50 or more goals in four of his eight seasons and the four-time All-Star is almost certain to do so again this campaign.

But it is team goals not personal ones that matter now as Ovechkin continues to shape his hockey legacy.

Ovechkin will have many more chances to see his name engraved on Lord Stanley's famous mug but at 28 and entering his third Winter Games, the opportunity to reach the Olympic summit may never be better than it will be this time on home ice.

"It's totally different," shrugged Ovechkin, when asked which he thought would be a greater achievement an Olympic gold or Stanley Cup. "The Olympics are short one. It's like 12 days.

"If you're going to win the Olympic gold medal you have to concentrate for just 12 days."

It is certain to be 12 insanely pressure-packed days for Ovechkin and his team mates as they attempt to reclaim the proud country's hockey honor.

FADED POWER

Ovechkin has steered clear of hot button issues - gay rights and terrorism - that have hung over the buildup to the Sochi Games but there will be no skating around the heavy expectations that will dropped on the team's collective shoulders.

Once international ice hockey's undisputed super power, Russia's dominance faded following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Winners of six-of-seven Olympic titles from the 1964 Innsbruck Games to Calgary in 1988, the last traces of Russia's hockey empire were seen at the 1992 Albertville Winter Games when a "Unified Team" of former Soviet republics took gold.

In the five Winter Olympics since, Russia has had to settle for one silver and a bronze while plunging to an embarrassing low in Vancouver where they slumped to a sixth-place finish.

The tremendous burden to bring down the curtain on the Sochi Games in glorious style by claiming hockey gold on the final day will be no different than the pressure Canada felt four years ago when Crosby scored the golden goal to lift the host nation to victory over the United States.

The Canadian win touched off wild celebrations across the Great White North and no doubt a Russian gold medal would spark the same hoopla across all nine time zones from St Petersburg to Vladivostok.

"It's all about the gold," conceded Ovechkin. "We have a goal to win the gold medal and we're going to try to win it.

"I can't wait. I'm excited and nervous but right now I'm trying not to concentrate about it.

"I'm pretty sure it's going to be really interesting and great fun. Fun and interesting is one part but we have to win."

PROUD RUSSIAN

No athlete in Sochi will be under greater scrutiny than the fun-loving Ovechkin.

In many ways Ovechkin is not just the face of Russian hockey, he is the face of the Sochi Olympics, a proud Russian who was prepared to defy the NHL and risk that $124 million contract to be part of the 2014 Winter Games.

While the NHL waffled on whether it would continue its Olympic participation, Ovechkin had no such hesitation, declaring no matter what the league decided, he had made his own decision and would be in Sochi.

"Nobody can tell me you can't play for your country," barked Ovechkin.

It was bold threat that did not go unnoticed by Russian Olympic and government officials, who bestowed the honor of being the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch after it was lit in Ancient Olympia to began its 35,000 mile relay to Sochi.

"Probably, yeah," said Ovechkin when asked if these Olympics mean more to Russia than any other nation. "But every person wants to be there because it's the Olympic Games.

"It doesn't matter where you go if it's Russia, Canada, the U.S. or London, it's the Olympic Games.

"You might only have one opportunity in your lifetime."

(Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by John O'Brien)

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