MOSCOW – The line stretched the length of the hall of the Luzhniki Ice Palace, the grand old Soviet arena of Greek columns and marble that hosted the final four games of the 1972 Summit Series. There were hundreds of people, actually thousands. They had come to see one of their modern Russian hockey heroes, Alex Ovechkin, only to find he wasn't playing because of illness – only to find they would be able to see him, anyway.
The announcement came during the second period of Dynamo Moscow's game against Dinamo Riga on Monday night: Ovechkin, the locked-out captain of the Washington Capitals, would be signing autographs on the second-floor concourse during intermission. Even though it was a one-goal game, the stands emptied immediately. The fans lined up behind metal barricades. They leaned over the third-floor overhang, knowing they would have no chance to meet him there, but a better chance to see him.
And then there he was, surrounded by three guards, wearing his white No. 32 Dynamo jersey and stylishly ripped jeans. Ovechkin waded through the crowd and waved. He took a picture with a kid in a wheelchair. Then he signed, and signed, and signed, and signed. Little kids. Old ladies. Grown men. He signed hats and scarves and shirts and jerseys. He signed pictures and programs and whatever else a marker could mark.
"It was very crazy," said Mikhail, the team official trying to keep it under control. (Sorry, it was so crazy, I didn't get his last name.)
It was very cool. Maybe Ovechkin passed along some germs – sounds like bronchitis, and Mikhail said he's supposed to be out a week – but it was worth it. Just like in that cold little hallway Friday night with Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins star playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, it was obvious what this meant to Russian fans. The lockout might be bad for the NHL, but it's great for the Kontinental Hockey League. It might be a nightmare for North Americans, but it's a dream come true here. How else would they get to see players like Ovechkin live?
"He's quite popular in Russia," said Sergey Chelyshkov, a fan from Moscow. "I saw him on TV only. It's good opportunity to see him in the [flesh]."
Ovechkin has threatened to stay in the KHL if the NHL reduces the value of his contract too much. It is an empty threat. He is signed through 2020-21, and his salary goes from $9 million to $10 million after two more years. Even if the owners force the players to accept a far lower percentage of hockey-related revenue, escrow won't exactly kill Alex Ovechkin. The NHL will continue to make him a very rich man. And then there are, you know, the legal issues.
But on a night like this, you can see why Ovechkin would say something like that. The KHL can make him rich, too, and it can make him rich playing in his hometown for his original club in front of his own people. He is a Capital, but in Russia, this is the capital.
"It's fun for them to see him live," said Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin's teammate in Washington and now Moscow. "Obviously they like it. I can understand that."
Ovechkin signed as fast as he could. He posed for picture after picture. The guards barked at people to keep moving. When the intermission ended, Mikhail whisked him away. He didn't get to everyone – not even close – but there was no way he could have. Not unless he wanted a serious hand cramp. Not unless Dynamo didn't care if anyone watched the third period.