ARLINGTON, VA - In all sports - on both the professional and collegiate levels - superstars athletes are under the microscope. Some things are serious, while others are merely useless fodder used solely for inane water cooler chatter.
For Washington Capitals forward and captain Alex Ovechkin, news of him being "out of shape" this summer was a mixture of both. Back in Washington for the start of the 2011-12 season and to announce his new equipment deal with Bauer Tuesday, Ovechkin made sure to clarify that the rumors of his apparent health demise have been greatly exaggerated.
"I think right now I'm in better shape than I was last year and the year before," Ovechkin said Tuesday. "My conditioning is much better, so I feel pretty good."
The notion of Ovechkin being out of shape sprang out of a one-on-one interview that he conducted with Capitals senior writer Mike Vogel July 18. In the interview, it looked as though Ovechkin had added some weight around his stomach. With free agency and development camp over and time to kill, Caps fans and the local media took to Ovechkin's torso, questioning his conditioning and his desire. A career-worst season in goals, assists and points (32 goals, 53 assists, 85 points) did not work in Ovechkin's favor either.
"I think it's bad video camera situation," Ovechkin said. "That photo, it was kind of strange. When I get back home my friends start just killing me, saying, 'Hey, did you see that? Did you see that?' I said, 'What happened? What happened?' They said, 'You look kind of fat.' I said, 'No, I can't be fat.' It's kind of a funny situation, I think. I was laughing about it but people was a little bit scared -- especially hockey fans was kind of scared about what happened to my body. But my body is perfect now."
Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis said Tuesday that Ovechkin tried something different last year in terms of his physical preparation, deciding to work his way into shape over the course of the season so that he was at peak physical condition by the end. Despite missing only three games during the regular season, Ovechkin never had a chance to really prove that after the Tampa Bay Lightning swept the Caps out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Ovechkin, however, has another opportunity to do that within the next few weeks as training camp begins around the NHL.
"Your health and what kind of shape you're in and how you practice, that's all part of becoming a better professional," Leonsis said. "Alex is our captain. I think that he's here early, that he looks to be really in great shape and he tried something different last year. The results will speak for themselves at the end of the season, but he looks great and he's in great spirits and when your captain and best player and highest-paid player is confident and in shape, I think that sets the tone for the rest of the team."
After the series, Ovechkin admitted to nursing several injuries during the course of the season, but that is natural for a game as physical as hockey or a player with such a hard-nosed style like his. Ovechkin also said after the Lightning eliminated the Caps that he planned to return to working out with his coach from when he was 15 years old. A month after the infamous interview became public, Ovechkin expressed his incredulity over the notion that he was out of shape, which he reiterated Tuesday.
"It was a pretty interesting moment for me, because it's never happened to me when people said I'm in bad shape," Ovechkin said. "I started early. I started [July 23] and I'm still working out. It's kind of good. I still have one more month before season and it's not time to just be rested again. You have to be in shape all the time right now."
Of course, the Caps are not all about Ovechkin. Washington added five new players this offseason who all factor to be important pieces in solving the puzzle that is the elusive Stanley Cup. With returning players like Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble there to support Ovechkin in his second full season as captain, he hopes to further develop his role as a leader on and off the ice.
"Last year and year before when I get the 'C' on my heart it was something new for me because I had never been a captain at that high level," Ovechkin said. "But last year was a good year for me to learn what I have to do. We make some changes on our team. Almost five guys left and five guys came to the team, so it's almost new team. I think we have to welcome the guys who right now is not here, but they are going to be in a couple weeks here, and show them how good we are in locker room and the fans have to be very good for them too."
Perhaps the busiest summer in franchise history once again has the Caps penciled in as one of the top teams in the NHL, but what is written on paper does not matter come October. Several Capitals other than Ovechkin are looking for a return to form after disappointing seasons (Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green), but as the captain of the team, Ovechkin will have to lead the charge not just for himself and his teammates, but for a franchise that has come so close and is no longer far away.
"Great players, they modify," Leonsis said. "They go offseason per offseason and try new things. He had a different training regimen this offseason and it shows."
"He is a natural leader and now he wants to be more of a by-example and being a vocal leader," Leonsis continued. "The best way to set that tone is to come into camp early and be in shape and just spending a lot of time with the players and reaching out to the new guys and welcoming them to the team and the community."