Editor’s note: Monday marks the 15th anniversary of Alex Ovechkin’s memorable NHL debut. Long before Ovechkin re-wrote the franchise record book and captained the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup title, he was a 20-year-old rookie looking to make an early impression in his new home.
Below is an excerpt about Ovechkin’s first game (Oct.5, 2005) from “100 Things Capitals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die: Stanley Cup Edition” — a book by WTOP’s Ben Raby.”
There’s a scene in the movie “Slapshot” where Charlestown Chiefs captain Johnny Upton is introduced to his new teammates, the Hanson brothers.
“They’re f—ing horrible looking!” Upton says of the unkempt trio, with their thick glasses and long hair.
The scene from “Slapshot” played out in Jeff Halpern’s head when the Capitals captain first met prospect Alex Ovechkin in August 2005. Halpern was one of several Capitals players skating in Laurel, Maryland, that summer, in the weeks leading up to training camp.
“I remember the first time he shows up, he was wearing cutoff Daisy-Duke jean shorts that would have been too short on a girl,” Halpern said. “And he had these monstrous, incredible-Hulk legs sticking out of them. His shirt was too tight, he was wearing flip-flops and it didn’t look like he fit into his clothes.”
“And with all the billing of this guy being the savior our franchise, I’m looking at him thinking, ‘Seriously? This is the guy? He’s going to carry us?’”
His English was raw and his fashion sense limited, but Ovechkin quickly showed that he could play. He impressed at training camp and capped off the preseason with five goals in the final two games.
“It wasn’t just that he was scoring in the preseason games,” said general manager George McPhee, “but the goals were coming easily for him. We just thought, even in the preseason, he was scoring some big goals — like real goal-scorer’s goals. We thought, ‘Boy, this guy sure looks like a special player.’”
After netting a hat-trick in the preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Capitals fans eagerly anticipated Ovechkin’s regular-season debut.
The Capitals returned to MCI Center on Oct. 5, 2005, for their first regular-season game in 550 days, after a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 campaign. There was a curiosity factor coming into the season with the NHL implementing a series of rule changes to help boost scoring, plus so many fresh faces with new teams.
Nine players were making their Capitals debuts on opening night, but with no offense to incoming veterans Matt Bradley, Andrew Cassels or Chris Clark, the 16,325 fans in attendance were mostly there to witness the most talked-about NHL debut in team history.
“Capitals fans were buzzing about Alex Ovechkin on their way to the rink that night,” said NBC Sports Washington’s play-by-play voice Joe Beninati. “Hockey fans were thinking about it because they had drafted Ovechkin in the summer of 2004 and the whole time, you had this great new toy that you wanted to try, but that you’d been told you had to wait to play.”
But once the puck dropped on the 2005-06 season, fans didn’t have to wait long to see what all the fuss was about. Skating on a line with Halpern and Dainius Zubrus, Ovechkin was in the starting lineup against the Columbus Blue Jackets and created a lasting memory on his first career shift.
As Columbus defenseman Radoslav Suchy went into his own zone to retrieve the puck, Ovechkin skated past veteran Adam Foote, who was skating in his 800th career game, and crushed an unsuspecting Suchy into the end boards. Forty seconds into his NHL career, Ovechkin delivered a thunderous hit that was so hard, it dislodged the stanchion between two pieces of Plexiglas.
The game was delayed for a few minutes as repairs were applied, but the crowd helped pass the time with a standing ovation.
“That first game stands out,” Zubrus said. “I remember, here we are all thinking that he’s a goal-scoring guy who can put up a lot of points, and obviously, he was, but then on that first shift he runs the guy through the glass and we just looked at each other, like, ‘Oh wow. What do we have here?’”
Halpern admits that he had his concerns going into Opening Night, not only because of the off-ice culture shock Ovechkin had to deal with, but also because of how he carried himself on the ice. The opener against Columbus was less than a week after Ovechkin scored twice in a preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers and riled them up in the process.
“He scored a goal and he skated by their bench and winked,” Halpern said. “And Philly had a really tough team at the time. So, we felt he was clueless. I guess he didn’t realize how excited he was to score goals at the time but we were just hoping not to get killed after that. So, going into Opening Night, I thought he was a good player, but you wanted to know that he could [fend for himself].”
The first hit of his career, which came at the end of a hard 40-second shift, quieted some of those initial concerns.
“He just exploded from that first shift,” Halpern said. “Physically, you don’t expect a rookie to come in like that. And not only did he steamroll everyone he faced that year, but anyone that tried to hit him would get knocked down. Real strong, sturdy guys would try to run him and he’d just knock them down. That first game, he laid out the Columbus defenseman right off the bat and just how easily the goals came to him was impressive. It was like, ‘Wow this guy can do everything.’”
In the second period, Ovechkin opened his personal scoring account, netting the Capitals’ first goal of the season. Twenty-three seconds after Columbus took a 1-0 lead, Ovechkin was parked in the high slot when he blasted a one-timer from Zubrus and beat Columbus rookie Pascal Leclaire for his first career NHL goal.
Less than five minutes later, Ovechkin scored on the power play, with Halpern feeding him from in close for the quick finish. Ovechkin became the first player in Capitals history to score twice in his NHL debut. He was also the first first-overall pick with two goals in his first career game.
“That’s how the whole season was,” said Zubrus, who scored the game-winning goal in an eventual 3-2 Capitals win. “He surprised everybody. We knew that he was good, but I don’t know that we all knew how much of a game-changer he was going to be.”
Forward Brian Willsie, who played all 82 games during the 2005-06 season, also remembers the first game against Columbus setting the tone for Ovechkin’s memorable rookie year.
“He was ultracompetitive all the time,” said Willsie, “and he was always going 100 miles-per-hour. And then during the first game, it’s like, ‘Oh wow.’ He’s finishing every check, putting guys through the wall, and you’re asking, ‘Can he really keep this up all year? Can he score goals at this rate? Can he hit guys at this rate?’ And he did. He had no trouble keeping up at that pace and it was amazing to be a part of it and watch him grow.”