When Alex Ovechkin signed his 5-year, $47.5 million contract extension on July 21, it all but guaranteed that he will retire having spent his entire NHL career with the Washington Capitals. Ovechkin, 35, will have played 21 seasons by then, and even if he never wins another Stanley Cup, he will likely have cemented his legacy as the greatest professional athlete in D.C. sports history.
Ovechkin brought the Capitals franchise its first championship in its 44-year history in 2018, and the District its first “Big Four” sports title since 1992. He is already sixth all-time in goals in the NHL (730), and is perhaps the most dominant offensive weapon in the history of professional hockey. By signing a longer than expected five-year extension, he is signaling that he is serious about making a run at Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record (894), a mark once thought to be untouchable.
“That’s why I want to play five more years,” Ovechkin told reporters at a press conference last week. “To have a chance to catch the Great One, why not?”
But more importantly for Ovechkin, in terms of his legacy as a local sports icon, he’ll have spent his entire career with a D.C. team. The importance of loyalty to one franchise—or at least the perception of it—when assessing legacies can’t be overlooked. Consider Kevin Durant, an NBA superstar chided for his decision to join superteam after superteam in his quest for validation. Some commenters still complain about LeBron James, perhaps the biggest American athlete in the world, “taking his talents to South Beach” and teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat before winning titles in Cleveland and Los Angeles.
Just last week, the Washington Nationals traded 2019 World Series heroes Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nearly eight games out of first place in the National League East, the Nats are in fire sale mode, and in the midst of this rebuild, no cherished moment-maker is safe. The memories of Game 7 are being picked apart piece by piece and sold off for scrap; only three players on that World Series-winning Game 7 starting lineup still wear the Curly W.
The Capitals, too, have weathered their share of ups and downs over Ovechkin’s tenure. They finished last in the division the year before Ovechkin arrived and the first two years after. Then they rattled off two separate four-year runs as division champions. They’ve had seven head coaches, worn nine different jerseys, and won one Stanley Cup.
And through it all, there has been Ovechkin. When he first started playing for the Capitals nearly twenty years ago, his opponents were NHL legends like Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, and Brett Hull. He skated alongside teammate Michael Nylander, and then battled against Nylander’s son, William, in the playoffs more than a decade later. Players selected in this year’s NHL draft were born the year Ovechkin entered the NHL. To call this kind of longevity with a single team unusual for a D.C. sports star is an understatement.
What other D.C. athletes who played in the Big Four leagues can you compare him to? Cal Ripken Jr. played for Baltimore. In football, perhaps only John Riggins or Darrell Green, but the former was already a star in New York before coming to Washington. In basketball, the late Hall of Famer Wes Unseld gets a mention, but he did not have the sustained dominance of Ovechkin in his sport. Many old-heads point to baseball’s Walter Johnson, the great Senators pitcher who also spent his entire 20-year career in Washington, starting in 1907. But because “professional” sports were so different then, it’s difficult to compare turn-of-the-century apples to modern synthetic oranges.
I wanted to get a better understanding of this longer-term perspective, so I asked the person I consider the ultimate Washington sports old-head: my father, John Rogers. My dad was born in Washington, D.C. in 1952, has lived in the region his entire life, and is an unapologetic D.C. sports homer. Raised on football, baseball, and basketball, he began following hockey nearly 20 years ago, when Ovechkin was drafted. And despite more than half a century of watching Washington sports stars come and go, he doesn’t hesitate when I ask him who the greatest ever is.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that comes close to Ovechkin. I can’t think of anybody,” he says, rattling off and then quickly dismissing many of the usual suspects: Johnson, Riggins, Elvin Hayes, Sammy Baugh. None of them match Ovechkin’s continuous greatness in his sport and his synonymousness with one franchise. And with his new contract, he has a chance to reach rarified echelons of sports legend. But you don’t have to look to the future to see the seeds of Ovechkin’s legacy being planted in this area—they’ve already begun to bear fruit. You only need to visit a local ice rink.
“I’ve never seen a player in any sport transform a city like Alex has transformed D.C.,” Capitals color commentator and former player Craig Laughlin said during Ovechkin’s press conference. “At rinks all over the DMV, at all ages, the number 8 is everywhere and it’s synonymous with Alex Ovechkin.”
Participation in youth hockey has exploded in the Washington region since Ovechkin hit the scene. Just last weekend, two local Ovechkin fans and products of Arlington’s Little Capitals hockey program, Bryce Montgomery and Liam Gilmartin, were selected in the 2021 NHL Draft.
“He has been the cornerstone of this franchise,” Capitals play-by-play announcer Joe Beninati said of Ovechkin.
Indeed, for the last two decades, Ovechkin has been the cornerstone of the Capitals franchise, the NHL’s marketing juggernaut, and the axis on which the D.C. sports universe spins. And with his new contract, there’s no reason to believe he will ever be anything else.
Photo by All-Pro Reels, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.