Grand Forks, N.D.

Team Russia head coach Sergei Gersonsky is thankful for two things: his squad's good fortune through the first week of the World Junior Hockey Championship and the NHL lockout.

In all likelihood, without the labor stoppage, the Russians would be without star forward Alexander Ovechkin, the No. 1 selection in last year's NHL Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals. With Washington's depleted roster, Ovechkin will possibly be skating on rinks nowhere near Grand Forks.

The Russians, who face the United States at 7:38 tonight in the semifinals, have benefited from Ovechkin's fantastic play in the tournament. Through four games, the 6-foot-2 forward is tied for second in the tournament in scoring with five goals and three assists.

"He's obviously a really talented player," Capitals vice president and general manager George McPhee said. "But what we like most about him is the way he competes. He's a real intense player."

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While he's regarded as one of the greatest players to come out of Russia in the past decade, he bares little resemblance to stoic Russian players of old.

He is very lighthearted and smiles when he greets people. He also doesn't take his job too seriously. During a Russian team workout Friday morning, Ovechkin was laughing with his teammates and kicking an inflatable therapy ball across the room, something 1980 Olympic Russian National Team players Vladislav Tretiak or Boris Mikhailov typically wouldn't do.

"Hockey is my life, but I don't think of it as my job," Ovechkin said. "I love this sport. I love hockey."

Being able to excel in competition is something Ovechkin inherited from his family.

Ovechkin's mother, Tatiana, earned a pair of gold medals for the former Soviet Union's women's basketball team in the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games, while Alexander's father, Mikail, was a professional soccer player in Russia. The Russian dynamo is very proud of his bloodlines.

"My mother was very popular throughout Russia and the world," Ovechkin said. However, instead of following his mother or father, Ovechkin took after his older brother and decided to focus on hockey at a young age.

"My brother (Sergei) took me to the hockey school (when I was eight)," Ovechkin said. "So I played hockey."

It was the first step in what has led to a three-year career with Moscow Dynamo and the Russian National Junior team.

McPhee is hoping that Ovechkin can continue to show passion for the game as he looks to rebuild the lowly Capitals with the help of the Russian superstar. "He continues to get stronger and produce," McPhee said. "He's more than holding his own (in the Russia men's league) this season."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Cummings at (701) 241-5549