It's often said that the world junior tournament is a 19-year-old event, suggesting that the players who excel at the under-20 championships are those just under 20, the most physically mature and experienced players eligible. Rare has been the youngster who has starred in this tournament and gone on to be a high draft pick in the National Hockey League draft the following June.
All of this makes the accomplishments of Alexander Ovechkin all the more remarkable. Ovechkin, who turned 17 on September 17th last year, showed the way for the Russian juniors as they swept the competition in the A Pool in Sydney in the preliminary round. Yet the young Muscovite won't be eligible for the NHL draft until 2004. Though team-mate Nikolai Zherdev, a fleet winger, has been touted by many scouts as the likely first selection in the 2003 NHL draft, he has but one point for the defending champions while Ovechkin is not only among his team's leaders in scoring but close to the top of all scorers in the tournament. Zherdev has not received much ice time while Ovechkin has centred the Russians' top line, dealing the puck to wingers Yuri Trubachev and Alexander Polushin.
Some have noted that the last 17-year-old who had a similar impact on the tournament was Wayne Gretzky. For a more recent comparison, others have pointed out that Ovechkin has been a far more effective and complete player here than Ilya Kovalchuk was as an 18-year-old in Moscow a couple of tournaments ago.
At a press conference on New Year's Day, Ovechkin showed himself to be a sharp and self-effacing contrast to the brash Kovalchuk. "I don't know about being as good a player as they are saying," he said. "I'm another player on the team."
Ovechkin talked about the influence of his parents--mother, Tatiana, was a two-time Olympic gold medallist in basketball and father, Mikhail, was a soccer pro. While Ovechkin said that he talks almost daily with his parents and looks to his mother for advice on his career, he credits his late brother, Sergei, for starting him on the road to hockey stardom.
"I was nine years old when Sergei took me to the (Moscow) Dynamo sports school for hockey," Ovechkin told reporters at the Halifax Metro Centre shortly after the Russian team arrived by bus from Sydney. "I had first gone to the sports school when I was six or seven but stopped. Sergei was 18 when he took me because he could see how much I liked the game. I think about Sergei every day when I play."
When journalists asked about Sergei's untimely death, a translator advised that it was a subject that Ovechkin preferred not to talk about.
Ovechkin said that he admires NHLers Mario Lemieux, Owen Nolan, and Nicklas Lidstrom and his favourite team is the San Jose Sharks. But Ovechkin also said that he was not in any particular hurry to play against the veteran pros. He said that he had not really thought about playing in the NHL as an 18-year-old like Kovalchuk had done.
One NHL scout who worked the world under-18 tournament in Piestany, Slovakia, last spring said that in a straight contest of skills--in a race around the rink or in stick-handling drills or in a hardest-shot competition--Zherdev might actually best Ovechkin. But the scout added that Ovechkin's play in his own end of the rink and his work ethic raised his stock over Zherdev.
Said the scout: "Most of the players at the top end of the draft have great skills. What separates these players is hockey sense and character. On both counts Ovechkin has it over Zherdev and anybody else you could name right now. If he were eligible I don't think there's any question that any NHL team would select him first overall for this year's draft."