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'Great 8' likes what he sees in China

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-09 08:57
Alexander Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals and the NHL's official ambassador to China, exchanges high-fives with kids at a youth camp in Beijing on Monday. Photo provided to China Daily

NHL superstar Ovechkin hopes to be back to represent Russia at Olympics

Alexander the Great is starring as the National Hockey League's official representative in China.

After hosting youth clinics, climbing the Great Wall and feasting on Peking duck, Alex Ovechkin, superstar captain of the Washington Capitals, has ticked off almost everything on his bucket list during his visit to Beijing.

Known as 'The Great 8', Ovechkin arrived in the capital on Aug 4 for a weeklong trip to promote hockey by taking part in youth clinics, interviews and business meetings. He also got a firsthand look at facilities for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

The NHL's reluctance to temporarily suspend its regular season to allow the world's best players to compete at the Games has sparked concerns about the tournament's quality, and a financial standoff with the International Olympic Committee over payments for travel, insurance and other considerations has furthered muddied the issue.

But Ovechkin, who missed the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics due to the NHL boycott, is hopeful the rift with the IOC can be mended in time for Beijing 2022.

"The NHL Players Association and the league are going to talk about it. I hope we are going to have some conversations and that the results will be good," said the 33-year-old native of Moscow, who suited up for Russia at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Games.

He added that the prospect of winning an Olympic medal for his country would be even more thrilling than leading the Capitals to the Stanley Cup in 2018.

"When you win the Stanley Cup, it's for a team... but when you play at the Olympic Games or the world championships, you represent your country. It's a totally different motivation," he said on Wednesday.

The first overall draft pick by the Caps in the 2004, Ovechkin has notched 658 goals and 553 assists in 1,084 games. A three-time league MVP, he also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs en route to the franchise's first Stanley Cup, becoming the first Russian to captain a league champion.

With 51 goals last season, he won his eighth Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL's top sniper, eclipsing Bobby Hull for the most times leading the league in goals.

"We are very excited that Alex is joining us in China this summer," said David Proper, NHL executive vice-president of media and international strategy. "He represents the best in sports, epitomizing that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL's efforts to grow hockey in China."

Throughout Ovechkin's eventful stay in Beijing, during which he dropped the puck for China's inaugural domestic league and hosted multiple clinics at Shougang Hockey Arena and Cadillac Center, both 2022 Olympic venues, he also signed autographs, high-fived and posed for photos with adoring fans who showered him with chants of "Ovi! Ovi!".

For 11-year-old Huang Shirui, a fifth-grader attending the Experimental School Affiliated to Beijing No 20 High School, interacting with one of the greatest players in NHL history was a huge motivation to keep pursuing his hockey dream.

"I never imagined that one day I could learn Ovi's shot, standing side by side with him. It made my day and inspires me to continue working hard," Huang said after taking part in a ball hockey session with the superstar on Wednesday.

Ovechkin said he was impressed by China's strong commitment to taking hockey into the nation's sports mainstream, but stressed the need to anchor it to a solid foundation.

"Hockey in China is just in the beginning of a long process," he said. "You have to do smart things, like building rinks, bringing in experienced coaches and starting all the preparations in the right way.

"With such a huge population, China is very important to our sport. If hockey can get a foothold here, it will help it go all over the world."

Ovechkin's trip to Beijing came a year after the legendary Wayne Gretzky visited as a partner of Chinese club Kunlun Red Star.

Gretzky, who retired in 2000 as the NHL's all-time leading scorer and holder of more than 40 records, similarly expressed a desire to see NHL players at the 2022 Olympics.

"The doors are still open," Andy Ecker, the International Ice Hockey Federation's Asia manager, said during the IIHF Asian Hockey summer camp earlier this week in Beijing.

"We believe it's still possible for the NHL to come to an agreement that competing in Beijing is beneficial for the long run."

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