WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bruce Boudreau became the Washington Capitals coach in a mid-season shake-up and admits to being awestruck by All-Star left wing Alex Ovechkin.
"I saw right away he comes to work every day and plays hard," Boudreau said in a recent interview. "You learn to accept it and watch him play.
"But he's also a great team guy. He's probably a better person off the ice than he is on the ice. He's the first one to cheer when somebody else on our team scores.
"That doesn't happen too often with someone of his caliber."
Ovechkin entered the NHL with lofty expectations and has exceeded them.
The 22-year-old Russian led the National Hockey League in scoring with 65 goals and 112 points this year and is the favorite to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player next month.
He not only scored points but he did it with a style and grace rarely seen since the days of the incomparable Wayne Gretzky. Ovechkin also delivered hits with the power of an enforcer, not the league's most gifted scorer.
"What stands out is Alex's enthusiasm and the sheer joy he takes in doing things that make fans happy," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "He is simply a treat to watch."
Bettman would probably have enjoyed having the six-foot-two-inch (1.88-metre), 215-pound (98-kg) Ovechkin on the ice a few weeks longer this season.
The Capitals lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in their Eastern Conference quarter-final series, denying the NHL a television ratings bonanza had Washington advanced to face Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Ovechkin, whose English is improving but is still spotty, and Canadian rival Crosby are the young and engaging cornerstones of the NHL, a league in some ways still trying to recover from the 2004-05 lockout.
With the Capitals bounced from the playoffs, Ovechkin took his vast offensive repertoire to Canada for the World Hockey Championships, playing for Russia in the 16-team tournament that began last Friday.
Olie Kolzig, a former Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top netminder, has been a member of the Capitals since 1989 and conceded that Ovechkin "is the best I've ever played with."
"I've played with guys that are strong in certain aspects of the game but he's strong in every part of it," he said. "The one issue going into this year was his playing his own end and he's become a lot more responsible in that aspect.
"He's really taken a leadership role. His English is so much better you can communicate and guys get his message. He plays with such enthusiasm, it rubs off on everybody."
Washington fans were concerned Ovechkin would flee to one of the NHL's marquee clubs until the left wing negotiated his own contract extension worth $124 million over 13 years.
Kolzig thought Ovechkin's performance "took a step back" last year (still a 46-goal season) "but he's more than made up for it this year."
"Even after he signed his contract people were waiting for a dropoff but his game actually elevated," said the 38-year-old Kolzig.
Reporters huddled around Ovechkin's locker are usually laughing with the affable third-year player, affectionately dubbed by the fans "Alexander the Great" or "Ovechking."
His missing tooth is readily apparent because he is always grinning. Modest, thoughtful and good-tempered, Ovechkin says he wants to "keep growing as a hockey player."
That thought makes Kolzig sleep better at night.
"You know that even if you're down in a hockey game to have him on the ice is an opportunity to score at any time," said Kolzig. "Sometimes I'll let in a bad goal and I really feel bad about it.
"But having Alex out there you know the chances are pretty good he'll get it back for you. He usually does."
Editing by Clare Fallon