The Ovechkin clan’s media footprint is usually dominated by Ovi himself. His dad Mikhail is sometimes good at generating a memorable quote or providing unexpected insight as well. But matriarch Tatyana Ovechkina, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner, is actually the family’s most accomplished athlete.
She is currently the President of Dynamo Moscow women’s basketball club, where her older son Mikhail is the Sporting Director. Under their guidance the team has climbed to the top of the European women’s basketball rankings, recently winning the European Cup. At 64 years old, the former captain of the USSR basketball national team is still going strong, but you will not often find her name in the newspapers. One has to go back a few years to find an interview with the mother of the captain of the Washington Capitals; she treats the press corps with a healthy dose of distrust and skepticism.
A few days ago, Russian sports daily Sport-Express ran an in-depth piece by acclaimed journalist Elena Vaytsekhovskaya. Elena also happens to be a former top level athlete herself, having won the gold medal in platform diving at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal – and she’s a close personal friend of Tatyana Ovechkina. In this interview, which we bring to you in translation below, Ovi’s mom talks about her views on money in modern sports, when she expects her son to retire from hockey and even tells us how big Alex the Great was when he was born. [WARNING: That last bit is not for the faint of heart.]
I often recall our conversation on the plane …on the subject of how difficult it is to return to life after you retire from sports and realize nobody cares about you.
I was a kids coach at a sports school then, they gave me that job as a favor. Obviously it was difficult: I was a two-time Olympic champion. Not only I was forced to ask for just any job, they also gave me the worst team – I had only three players. The season was starting in two months, and I had no players. So I started going through schools, people I knew. I took everybody who wasn’t wanted. In just one year, we took the third place in Moscow.
When I was pregnant with [Alex], I also had to go around visiting different school– all the way up to the delivery. With a huge belly. Because my son was born very big – 5.55 kg. (12 lb 4 oz), My husband was absolutely terrified when he saw me with that huge belly, and an umbrella – it was in September [Ed. note - rainy season in Russia] – go to scout yet another class. At that time– during Perestroika, nobody cared about Dynamo. So I had to take on all of the responsibilities – president of the club, and the head coach.
Financially, was it a difficult time?
My husband was making decent amount of money. We had a good apartment, a car, so I cannot complain at all. But there was always a shortage of funds for the club. Yuriy Luzhkov [former mayor of Moscow] helped me out a lot. Thanks to his financial support, we were able to bring back some key players from abroad.
With the kind of money that has come to sports now, is a return to regular life easier or more complicated?
Money always ends quickly, even big money. I am also not a big supporter of the talk how well off athletes are now and how bad everything was in the past. Between you and me, it was just as good. For example, my salary was the highest paid by the Sports Committee.
350 rubles a month? [Ed. note - a very good salary at that time.]
Yes, only two people in women’s basketball were being paid that much – myself and Uljana Semenova [Tatyana, Alex and Uljana]. Moreover, I was getting that salary for so long; I was even feeling a bit uncomfortable.
I had my second child by then already, finished playing, but they kept paying me. Once the National team head coach called me, I started thanking her for the money, and suddenly she said nobody on the team deserves to be paid as much, because of everything I have done for the national team.
But Dynamo never paid me anything. Recently, though, I found out that some of my teammates were paid. I was shocked. I thought it was unfair… I was a starter for the national team for so many years, was a captain, worked so hard without any time off…
But really, when the athlete’s career is over, it’s hard to find yourself. There are a lot of examples when great athletes after their sports career is over simply do not make it. Especially men. Hockey players, basketball players… You want to get a job, but nobody would hire you. Only the strong-minded ones survive. Or those who have connections. My whole life I had to count on my character and my will.
How did you manage to create such a strong family, given your character and ambitions? Because men usually expect women to be soft, amenable…
Well, I am who I am. Nevertheless, Mikhail and I live together– and we do get along. We understand and respect each other. Of course, we had our confrontations and other problems, but I was never the one to wash the dirty laundry in public. Both in team matters and family as well.
Who wanted to have three children?
Mikhail and I really wanted a girl. But we kept having boys. When I was pregnant with [Alex], I was so enchanted by Kaverin’s novel The Two Captains, I even had a name prepared in advance, so even if we had a girl I would have called her [Alexandra]. I should have had more children. We would have managed to bring them up somehow…
In your family there was an interesting situation, when for the youngest child the role of mother was practically taken over by your husband. Did you ever want to change it and take back that role?
That my husband was mostly taking care of our son, that was just how it worked out. I can’t even drive a car. And without driving, how would I deal with practices, all that hockey gear?
Couldn’t you learn how to drive?
No. Maybe it was that accident I was involved in when I was a child. There is nothing I can do about it, as soon as am in a driver’s seat, I freeze. That’s why Mikhail was always taking Alex to practice. Although all of the important questions regarding our son’s career we always decided together– at a family meeting, and we always tried to involved the kids as well. That’s probably why we have such a strong family.
When did you realize that hockey was something significant for Alexander?
I realized from the very beginning that he will be good at any sport. Some kids are just athletic. Because we lived right near the Palace of Sports, the kids spent all of their time there. I saw Alex’s movement, how he played basketball, soccer, tennis and table tennis, even though nobody ever taught him that. And he was a great goalie!
Is it possible that he is in the wrong sport?
It wasn’t that important to me which sport he’d pick. I wanted him to like whatever he chose. So he picked hockey.
When he left for America, signed his first NHL contract – did it get easier or more complicated?
I was worried. To send a child to the NHL, realizing the crazy schedule he would have… but Alex always wanted to play in the NHL – all boys dream of that. It’s not even about money. When he was leaving, the money in Russian hockey was already pretty decent.
All I could do in that situation was help. At home, with meals, taking care of the house. But on the inside, I felt torn apart. On one hand, of course I wanted for my son to stay at home. On the other, I was really curious how far he’d be able to go in the NHL.
How much does your son share his emotions with you?
It’s not easy to make him open up, especially after a loss. It’s always hard. Sometimes you can’t figure yourself out, let alone someone else. For me it was always easier to keep my troubles to myself. Silently. Although, you have to lose sometimes. Otherwise you’ll never learn what your weaknesses are.
Do you watch all of his games?
Of course. From the very beginning of his career. If not live, I always find the recording later.
Do you watch as a fan or as a coach?
Naturally, sometimes I am critical. When he was younger, I could ask him directly, “So, why did you skate your pants around the rink for so long?”
Did he get offended?
What for? Who, besides his parents, will tell him the truth? We know how it is with the players – it’s always everybody else’s fault. But before you blame the coach, you need to look at yourself and ask: did you do everything yourself? Hockey or basketball – it doesn’t matter.
When your son’s contract with the Capitals ends, he will be 35. Will it be the end of hockey for him, or will he continue?
I think that will be enough. I wouldn’t want him to play until he is 40.
Some play even when they are 50.
And what for? It’s one thing if you do it to stay in shape, to feel young longer. But the big sport – that’s totally different. You have to take in account physiology more and more as you get older. The strength is not the same, you can’t recover as fast, all the movements are different. To finish your career properly – it is also an art. And not just in sports.
By the way, were you worried at all when you were sending him away to the NHL that the money will spoil your son?
No. [Alex] was always sensible and not greedy. I know there is perception that big money can ruin a person’s life, but I don’t know what is more dangerous – money, or absence of money.
When it comes to girls, are you jealous for him?
Why? I don’t even pay any attention to what the tabloids write about him. They constantly try to marry him. At first I felt very annoyed, there are 30 teams in the NHL, there are Russian players on each team. Why are they all obsessed with my son? From his very first year in America. It’s a good thing it doesn’t bother him. I remember, he was reading the press on the internet. And all of a sudden he says, “Oh, mom, turns out I am having my wedding right now.” All those brides!
He is a bit strange when it comes to that. In America, if a fan walks up to you, it is customary to give an autograph and take a picture, and with a smile. Sometimes, I ask him in Russia, just shut your mouth when journalists are around. They are going to write god knows what again. But he laughs. “Let them write, mom. If that’s how they make money, why not help them?”
But generally we don’t discuss personal relationships at home. When our sons decide to start their families, so be it.
What is the last present you received from your men?
[Alex] always nags me: “Mom, tell me what you want.” I get mad at him – I don’t allow him to buy anything for me. Just flowers. My most important gift – for everybody at our home to be healthy. And happy.
Is it important for you to keep the family united?
Yes. In America, kids are sent out of the house when they are 16, and in Europe as well. But I think the family is above everything. Even if you don’t get together very often. My mother for example is 90 years old. In summertime she lives with us at our dacha, and when I go to stay with [Alex] in America, she moves in with my sister. My mom is great, she still exercises every day, takes care of herself. When I look at her, I often think: if that’s how my husband and I will be when we are old, we’ll be happy.