He's still a big enough star to get four guys from Norway House, Man., to travel 800 kilometres to Winnipeg and watch him go through a pregame skate at the MTS Centre. Still big enough for a gang of school kids to gawk at his every move and for a throng of journalists to hang on his every word.
But Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin is not having his usual spectacular season. And he knows it.
"So-so," Ovechkin said Thursday when asked to assess his season during a media scrum prior to the Capitals' game against the Winnipeg Jets. "Sometimes I get great chances, I just stay in the offensive zone most of the time, but I don't score and so sometimes I just get frustrated."
Ovechkin knows that his job is to ring up goals and with just seven so far this season heading into Thursday's game, that hasn't happened nearly enough. "I'll say I [haven't]scored goals like I used to score, wrist shot or slap shot. I think about it all the time. I'll react a bit differently and, you know, we'll see how it goes."
Ovechkin's slump is not only bad news for his team – the Capitals got off to a fast start but have won just once in their last five games as of Thursday – it's also bad news for the NHL. The league has built much of its marketing around Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguin star Sidney Crosby and both are missing in action.
Crosby has yet to play this season because of a concussion and it's not clear when he will return or how well he will play once he is back. And Ovechkin is rarely delivering the kind of showstopping moves that made him famous. He's on track to score 35 goals this year and collect 70 points. That would be his worst point total in his NHL career and a far cry from the three 50-plus goal seasons he had between 2007 and 2010.
"I think it's an issue when any of your stars are missing," said Brian Cooper of S&E Sponsorship Group in Toronto, a sports marketing company. But it's even more important for the NHL, he added, since Ovechkin and Crosby are by far the league's biggest and most recognizable players. They endorse more products than any other NHL players and they are the only two who are in multiple national advertising campaigns.
Cooper said Crosby and Ovechkin could still return to top form, mitigating any long-term damage. And he said the NHL has done a better job marketing hockey in general and not just the two superstars. But for now, the loss of Crosby and the slumping play of Ovechkin hurts, he said.
"It's certainly an issue," added Bob Stellick, a Toronto-based sports marketing consultant. "It's not what the league is looking for right now. It's disappointing."
Ovechkin may be a victim of his own success. Teams have studied his preference for flying down the left wing and cutting to the middle and they focus on stopping him or at least slowing him down. Opposing players are also stronger and more skilled, making them better able to block shots or give Ovechkin less room to operate.
"I think there's a sense that other teams key on him all the time," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team faces the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday. "But that's the same with every good player on every team, they find ways to key on him and it's up to us and him to find ways to get around it. It's just the way nature goes and hockey goes."
Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec said Ovechkin is a remarkable player, but added: "For him it's tough to play because everybody looks at him and everybody tries to stay with him on the ice and [make sure he]doesn't make a play."
Jets coach Claude Noel isn't convinced that anyone has figured out Ovechkin just yet. "I don't know that there's many people that can control him," Noel said prior to the game. "There's no doubt that we are going to be paying attention to him. I don't know that there's a recipe to take away his enthusiasm other than get on the rosary and start making phone calls to the big guy upstairs."
For now, anyway, fans like the four guys from Norway House can't get enough of Ovechkin and can't wait to see him play. "He's exciting," said one group member, Will Kizuik, who like all the others was wearing an Ovechkin jersey. "He's famous."