The Caps' openness to Russian players comes back to one guy: Ovechkin. Ovi's contract will keep him in the District for three-plus presidential terms, and the Caps reason that younger Russians will want to come to Washington to play with their country's greatest star.
Ovechkin does his part: He hosted Varlamov, Kugryshev and Viktor Dovgan at his house in Arlington during training camp and generally serves as a mentor to his younger countrymen.
"They spend all day at my house with me, and my mom cook for everybody," Ovechkin said during camp. "I just try to help young guys out. I remember when I came here [Dainius Zubrus] helped me a lot, and I just try to take care of them."
Ovechkin isn't a rah-rah leader — the guy who delivers the fire-and-brimstone speech. What he does is connect people from different backgrounds and different countries.
After every practice, many players participate in a game affectionately dubbed "Juice Boy." Participants must place a shot in each of the top corners of the net from a predetermined point on the ice.
The game goes on until only one player has not successfully hit both corners. The last man standing is Juice Boy for the day. The punishment: Juice Boy is required to serve sports drinks to each player at his locker.
The contest's popularity has grown tremendously. The game, once mostly the province of a small collection of guys who played for Boudreau on the Hershey minor league team, now includes most of the roster.
One day last month, the loser was Ovechkin — the man who scored 65 goals last season, the man who can hurl pucks at nearly 100 mph with his stick. There he was in the dressing room, Juice Boy, delivering drinks to his teammates.
From left, Viktor Kozlov, Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov and Alex Ovechkin are Russians playing for the Washington Capitals. The Caps field more Russians than any other NHL team, and they all play a critical role in the team's remarkable, newfound success. (Peter Lockley/The Washington Times)
"A lot of the Russian guys I've played with are very quiet and kind of keep to themselves," Poti said. "They didn't interact with our team that much, but our guys are kind of front and center with everything that is going on. I think it is easier for everyone to mesh and kind of get to know everyone when you have Russians who act like our guys typically do. There's a lot camaraderie and guys are always doing stuff with each other. Nobody is on kind of the outskirts of the team."
"I think he's definitely a little more vocal," said Caps defenseman Tom Poti, a teammate of Kozlov on the New York Islanders. "I think he just has a better comfort level when you have more guys from your homeland around. I've definitely seen more of a funnier side from him, and he's definitely a lot more vocal than when I played with him before."
Kozlov has spent much of this season on the team's top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. His statistics in two seasons in Washington are not a departure from his career norms, but Boudreau referred to him as "a round peg in a round hole" — a strong fit playing alongside the team's precocious tandem.
"Yes it is," Kozlov said when asked if he's had more fun in the District than previous stops. "In my experience, it is. That doesn't mean the other teams were bad, but this is such a fun team with fun guys. Plus, we are winning and that helps.
"We are all together here. It is a young team, and with a young team it is like a family the way we spend time together. Like I am married, but I still like to spend time with all the guys. We have fun times — lots of jokes."
After three-plus years of discontent with teams in Anaheim and Columbus, Fedorov joined the Caps in February 2008.
He was rejuvenated. Fedorov was glad to get away from rigid, defense-first coaches, but he was especially happy to join a team with young Russian talents like Ovechkin and Semin.
"I think what brings us together is a mutual respect and a mutual understanding and admiration of each other," Fedorov said. "Obviously, the younger generation is much funnier than us, but [Viktor Kozlov and I] try to stay young with them."
At 39, Fedorov on some nights looks 10 years younger on the ice.
Fedorov also draws a smaller, personal benefit from his association with the club's young Russians: The chance to catch up on the current slang of his native language and regain a better comfort level speaking it.
"In that regard I do get to speak Russian more," he said. "On the ice, I still speak English with everybody. It is not like I speak Russian all the time now. I try to interact with everybody, and it is definitely more comfortable here. It is a totally different atmosphere than in Anaheim or Columbus. It is just very good."
When Fedorov arrived, a profound change took place. The number of dominant performances by Semin grew, and the days when he made coach Bruce Boudreau want to yank out his few remaining hairs dwindled.
"He really looks up to [Fedorov]," Green said. "They are really close. Anytime [Ovechkin and Semin] are getting out of line, he will say something to them. That's what they need sometimes. They are two crazy guys, and he kind of keeps them under wraps. It is good.
Away from the ice, Semin now is less introverted. Case in point: A visit by Semin and Ovechkin with kids at a local hospital earlier this season. Ovechkin played a boxing game with a child on Nintendo Wii, flailing his arms in unorthodox fashion.
Ovechkin was mocking the fighting style of Semin, who a few days earlier took part in his first NHL scrap and earned plenty of ribbing for his, um, unconventional technique. But instead of feeling embarrassed by Ovechkin's jest, Semin broke into hearty laughter.
He still is naturally shy, but other teammates besides Ovechkin and Kozlov interact with him more. He still doesn't speak English to reporters, but he understands the language and knows more than he lets on.
Semin is not yet a finished product — on ice or off — but his great progress gives reason for hope of more to come.
"I think we communicate a lot better," Boudreau said. "I think he can speak and understand a lot more than he says. I think we're on a good level. Him and Alex are best friends, and they play together like it when they're on a line. He's been an easy guy to coach for me now."
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