“Sasha Was Different” – Former Washington Capitals Forward Dainius Zubrus Talks About Playing With Alex Ovechkin In Recent Interview

Igor Rabiner/Sports Express

Dainius Zubrus was a forward who played nearly 19 years in the NHL and played with the Washington Capitals from March 13, 2001 until February 27, 2007 season. Zubrus was originally drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft. The Capitals traded him to the Buffalo Sabres in early 2007, a year in which the Sabres advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Zubrus last played in the NHL during the 2015-16 season.

During this past week, Russian Sports media outlet Sports Express interviewed Zubrus, with many of the interview questions centering around Zubrus’ corner Washington teammate, Alex Ovechkin, and the beginning of the Russian star’s NHL career. At the present time, Zubrus is at his home in Lithuania, waiting for the Coronavirus pandemic to subside.

Zubrus represented Russia internationally in the NHL Sponsored World Cup but later represented his native Lithuania.  He is currently the President of the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation.

The interview is as follows in its entirety:

Question: Did you meet Ovechkin at the World Cup [of Hockey] in September 2004, where you played together for the Russian team?

DZ: Yes. I remember when Washington won the draft lottery that year, everyone said that the Capitals really needed it. Because a player of the caliber of Ovechkin can change the entire hockey culture in the city. It was no secret to anyone what a talented player this [guy] was. At that World Cup, he was the youngest player on the national team. He did not play all games in the tournament but scored one goal.  It was hard for him to distinguish himself on a team of such experienced players, but it was clear he was a good young man. Communicating with him was easy.  (Other players on the Russian team included Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Kovalev, Alexei Yashin, Sergei Gonchar, Darius Kasparaitis, and Andrei Markov; Russia lost to the United States in the Quarterfinals).

Zubrus went on to talk about the 2004-05 season [the lockout-cancelled NHL season] in the Russian Super League during which his team, Togliatti Lada, met Ovechkin’s team, Moscow Dynamo, in the Finals, with Dynamo winning.

He also talked about his experience at training camp prior to the 2005-06 season, recalling how he stayed at the house of then-Capitals’ General Manager, George McPhee. Zubrus did not live far away so he would pick up Ovechkin on the way to the rink when working out prior to the official start of training camp.

DZ: Sasha [Ovi] was drafted first overall, and it was important for the club to help him. George already knew him, before, during, and after the draft, he probably already met him a hundred times. Typically, a club starts paying for a player in a hotel, two to three days before training camp. But Sasha arrived 1-2 weeks early. And instead of leaving him alone in the hotel where he had no idea how to get to practice, the General Manager offered to let him stay at his place.

Question: Did Ovechkin quickly fit in with the team at the training camp, on both the ice and in the locker room?

DZ: Yes, I don’t remember him having any problem fitting in. He is an easy person to get along with. He wanted to communicate with people, he himself liked to joke, and did not take offense when others joked with him.  I don’t remember how any of the preseason games went, but I perfectly remember one of his first shifts in the NHL [Zubrus assisted on Ovechkin’s first NHL goal] against Columbus. He laid a hit on someone [defenseman Radoslav Suchy] and drove him so hard towards the edge of the rink that the protective glass shattered!

Question: It was even on the first shift — the 38th second.

DZ: Exactly! At that moment, I realized that he is a very unusual player for Russia and Europe, in general. He can play physical, and score a goal, and give hits … He has the physical part of the game – and, moreover, he likes it.  This is very good for the NHL.

When something does not work out on ice, sometimes you need to hit someone. Or even to get hit. Physical play helps you get involved in the game. We sometimes talked about this, that sometimes even such moments, and not goals, change the game. And sometimes he himself felt that he needed it. He caught someone and hit him hard to feel better.

Question: Did the team go nuts when the glass shattered?

DZ: I think yes. I didn’t ask anyone else, but I definitely went nuts. We laughed on the bench after that – that’s how the guy got excited from his debut in the NHL! Usually Europeans are pure skill players. And then he really got physical when hitting a man broke the glass.

Zubrus went onto talk about his memories of Ovechkin wishing to room with a North American on road trips so that he could learn English [his road roommate was Brian Willsie]. Ovechkin could have taken the path of least resistance and roomed with Zubrus, who was the only other Russian speaker on the team during his rookie year. That was the opposite of many Russians who have come over to the NHL who, even after 10 years, spoke English no better than they had as rookies.

DZ: Sasha was completely different. He wanted not only to be able to express his thoughts, but to understand jokes in the locker room in order to fully integrate himself into the life of the team, the NHL life. He wanted not only to do his job, but to feel the buzz from all this.

Zubrus went on to describe how the Capitals at that time were a very friendly team and not at all cliquish.  Overall, the team after the lockout, was very young team, many of them who having played with the Caps’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey. The veterans were good people who set the tone. This list of players included Jeff Halpern, Olaf Kolzig, and Chris Clark, who all respected Ovechkin from the beginning.

Zubrus was also asked about the state of the team prior to the lockout, a season in which the Caps finished with the second-worst record in the NHL (they were tied with the Chicago Blackhawks in points).

DZ: Everyone knew that there would be a lockout – and it would be a long one. Of course, we did not realize that it would last the whole season — no one wanted it. But the fact that it would drag on was clear to everyone. When the owner of Washington, Ted Leonsis, realized that the Capitals would not get into the playoffs, he told George McPhee that the team would need to prepare for a long lockout and get rid of most of the expensive contracts. And, so it happened. Before the lockout, most of the team veterans were traded away, leaving just Kolzig, Halpern, [defenseman Brendan] Witt, me, and a couple of other people.

McPhee had also talked to Zubrus about the prospect of being traded.  Zubrus replied, “If you trade me, I will find a roof over my head anywhere. I just want to play. And that’s all.”  In the end, McPhee kept Zubrus for the remainder of the 2003-04 season and did not trade him until the trade deadline of the 2006-07 season.

The interview covered numerous other topics, including “The Goal” that he scored in Phoenix against the Coyotes.  The entire interview can be found here.

By Diane Doyle

Further Reading
Sports Express Interview with Dainius Zubrus — 4/14/2020
Retro Recap: A Past Opening Day – October 5, 2005

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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