When the Washington Capitals signed Alex Ovechkin to a $124 million US, 13-year contract eight years ago, the long-term commitment and first nine-digit deal in NHL history represented a significant risk.
Owner Ted Leonsis and former general manager George McPhee's concerns were about possible injury. But now that Ovechkin is one point away from 1,000 for his career, he has eased their concerns.
Few players over the past decade have been as durable or productive as the rough-and-tumble 6-foot-3, 245-pound superstar, who hits almost as much as he scores.
"I never had any issues about whether the fire would die," McPhee said by phone Tuesday. "I never, ever thought he would cheat us on effort because he was such a hard-working kid on the ice. ... The only concern was, `What if he gets hurt?' And that's everybody's fear with long-term deals. But in terms of ability and desire, I never worried about that."
A year ago Ovechkin became the fifth-fastest player to 500 goals, and if he reaches 1,000 in his 880th game Wednesday against longtime rival Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, he'd be the second-fastest active player to that milestone behind Jaromir Jagr, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Crosby, who's at 982 points in just 740 games, could bump him to down the list very soon.
While concussions interrupted Crosby's prime, the 31-year-old Ovechkin has never missed more than 10 games in 12 NHL seasons despite countless bumps, bruises and assorted other injuries. He played through a broken foot in the 2013 playoffs, came back with no ill effects from a knee injury in 2014 and battled a back injury on the way to scoring 50 goals (again) last season.
As McPhee put it, Ovechkin "plays through everything." The now-Vegas Golden Knights GM remembers Ovechkin needing several stitches to close a bad skate cut on the inseam of his leg during a game in Pittsburgh in December 2007 and then surprisingly playing two nights later in Ottawa and scoring four goals.
Former coach Glen Hanlon said Ovechkin at 80 per cent is still great, which is why his scoring prowess has continued into his 30s against the trend of most goal-scorers.
"When we signed Alex to the 13-year deal, did we anticipate that he would remain an elite goal-scorer now going into his 30s, and the answer's obviously yes," Leonsis said before this season. "We had great confidence in him. What I've been surprised at is that he's continued his physical play and still has remained a great goal-scorer. His durability has really positioned him as a really historic player."
Ovechkin will become the 84th player to reach 1,000 points, a mark that he said means he's "getting older."
"I remember my first year, my first game, like it was five minutes ago," Ovechkin told The Canadian Press after a three-point night Monday in Montreal that helped the Capitals win their sixth consecutive game. "Time move forward and time move quick, so you just have to enjoy every second and every moment and when you have an opportunity, try to do something special."
Coach Barry Trotz said it would fitting if Ovechkin would hit 1,000 at home since Washington is on a three-game home stand against the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. It would be even more fitting if Ovechkin gets No. 1,000 on an overtime goal to pass Jagr for sole possession of the most in history.
Ovechkin has 19 OT goals among his 544 and his production at such a high level for so long has defied convention, especially with the reckless abandon the Russian winger has played with his entire career. McPhee said Ovechkin among maybe only 10 players in the history of the game with the blend of toughness and scoring — like Gordie Howe, Cam Neely and Eric Lindros.
"When Ovi is best on his game, he's got the unique ability to play a physical game like no other star in the league can," Trotz said. "He has the ability to shoot the puck as good as anybody who's ever played the game, and he can be a force. He has those two elements.
"When he's imposing his will, he's skating, he's using his big frame to be a hard guy to handle. When he's got all those things going, he's very, very unique. There's not too many guys in the league that have all those elements."