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Last month, in her customary aisle seat at the Verizon Center, Tatiana, elegant in a green-and-gold print vest with fur collar and leather gloves that extended almost to the elbow, watched a Capitals--Ottawa Senators match with a do-not-disturb focus. Her husband, a former soccer player and taxi driver, and older son sat a few rows back. (Alexander's parents have not sat together at his games for many years. "Superstition," Tatiana said, through a translator.) She muttered the occasional instruction, including "pass across," in English, when Washington defenseman Mike Green had the puck at the right point, but she never cheered, not even when her son beat goaltender Ray Emery with what proved to be the winning goal in a 4--2 Washington victory. She applauded twice during the game, once after Alexander Semin's film-at-11 goal and again when a package of goalie Brent Johnson's highlights was shown on the scoreboard. Several times during the game, Ovechkin glanced in his mother's direction as if there was some telepathic connection.
"She has so much experience," said Alexander. "We are both professional athletes. Mom is a strong athlete and a strong person."
Strong? How do you calculate strength? During an interview the day before the game Tatiana stood, raised her right trouser leg and exhibited with shy pride a massive scar that begins above her ankle and rides up almost to mid-thigh. When she was seven, walking home from school with friends, a car struck her. Doctors wanted to amputate the mangled leg. There was one major surgery, then another, and several minor operations. She was hospitalized for a year. When she finally returned to school, doctors forbade her from even participating in gym class. She devised her own rehabilitation program, putting bricks in a plastic bag, hooking it around her foot and doing leg lifts. By the time she was 10, she was blossoming on a youth basketball team.
Strong? How do you measure the strength needed to survive the loss of a child, her firstborn? Sergei Ovechkin died in 1995, when he was in his early 20s, from complications following an automobile accident in Moscow. "We were all together, grieved all together, together we didn't crumble and together, only together, we survived it," Tatiana said. Tears appeared to well in her eyes. The interpreter turned and added, "She asks you to move on to other questions." Asked if their son's death triggered a hyperprotective response in a woman he has known 38 years, the senior Mikhail spread his arms wide and said, "Of course. Like a hen with her chickens, trying to protect, spreading her wings, keeping them together."
THIRTEEN YEARS later the family seems close, happy. Certainly it is wealthy beyond expectation. When Alexander stood up and announced they had a deal, Leonsis walked over and hugged Tatiana, telling her, "You were very tough and very fair." Reflecting on that day, Leonsis says, "I missed my [late] mother, seeing not only how she loves her son but also how she launched him. She wants to give him all her advice and love, but he's a grown-up now. It was very sweet to watch."
The launch has been spectacular for Alexander, although, according to someone with knowledge of the family, Tatiana finds it difficult to see her son making more of his own decisions. When asked if Alexander's success is a continuation of her own decorated career, Tatiana says, "Of course."
"Sometimes I argue with my mom," says Alexander, "but she gives me great advice. The best advice was not about the contract but about life: Just be yourself."
And Mother Russia knows best.
Hot Shots from the Start
SINCE HE burst into the NHL in 2005, Alexander Ovechkin has scored more goals than any other player: 146 through Sunday. That total also is more than any other active player scored in his first 223 games. Here are the active players with the most goals in 223 games and how they have fared since.