"Mama Lucia! Mama Lucia!"
The Russian guys on the team have this nickname for me. They call me “Batya.” I’ll be honest … it’s not necessarily what would have been my first pick for a nickname.
It doesn’t really roll of the tongue like “Brooksy,” you know? But what I think doesn’t really matter. When a nickname sticks in the room, you’re done. Can’t go back in time.
Kuzy told me it means protector or father — something like that. Honestly, I only kind of believe him. I could totally see it meaning something ridiculous and this is just a big inside joke the Russian guys have been playing on me for the past four years.
I had been Brooksy for basically my entire career up until I joined the Caps. Loved that nickname. But Brooks Laich was on the team when I first got here, and he’d been called Brooksy for about a decade in Washington. The guys made an honest effort to use the name for both of us, but it was just too confusing. Anytime we’d be on the bus and someone shouted, “Brooksy!” we’d both turn around. So given that he had nickname seniority, he got to keep it and I got Batya. Thanks, Kuzy.
After Brooksy left, I was hoping I could make a smooth transition into my new nickname. But there’s no way you can stand up before practice and be like, “Hey boys, so I’m Brooksy now, that cool?” And honestly, Batya has kind of grown on me over the years. It’s not such a bad thing to know a little Russian on this team.
Coming into this season, I couldn’t help but notice how many people were talking about us maybe not even making the playoffs. All I could think was, Don’t these people know we still have Ovi?
I’ve been lucky enough to play with two of the best players in hockey history. How many guys can say that?
When I played with Sid in Pittsburgh, what stood out the most was how incredibly focused and disciplined he was.
Ovi is not like Sid.
For starters, he’s bigger.
I’d always assumed we were a similar weight based on the eye test. I was at 220 and he was always listed at 224. So I’d always be wondering why it felt like I had gotten hit by a ton of bricks every time we went into the boards. When I got to Washington and saw him on the scale, it said he was 240. I would have been surprised … but by then I had seen Ovi eat.
There’s a conventional way to do things, but he’s never really subscribed to it. Contrary to Sid, I think the best word to actually describe Ovi is reckless — on and off the ice. I know all the old-school hockey guys will be saying, “Reckless? What do you mean reckless?” But I honestly mean it in the best way possible. He plays the game with this level of freedom and imagination that allows him to try things other people won’t — and pull them off just about every night. Of course, it’s plain to see how his talent-level has elevated this organization for so many years, but it’s his general joy in playing the game that makes him an incredible teammate.
But also, seriously: The guy’s diet is borderline inspiring.
Ovi always orders the same thing — Mama Lucia, which is this pasta dish that’s like chicken parm with noodles, bread, cheese, the kind of thing you want to take a five-hour nap after eating. He makes a big display of it too. There’s no shame. It’ll be eleven in the morning, way before anyone is really thinking about eating lunch, and Ovi will walk into the dining area yelling, “Mama Lucia! Mama Lucia!” I don’t know. It’s weird, but it seems normal now.
Then, a few hours later, he’s outskating everyone on the ice, knocking guys on their asses and sniping pucks wherever he wants.
It wouldn’t work for some guys, but it works for him. Over the years, I’m sure people have tried to make him change, but when you’ve been as great as he has for as long as he has, why would you want to change?
It’s funny. Everyone is asking us about change. Now that we beat Pittsburgh all the talk is, “What did you guys do differently?”
When you have success — especially after having experienced repeated failure — a lot of people frame it like there’s one definitive thing you altered about your approach that made it happen. I think that simplifies things too much. What’s closer to the truth is that, even if you do everything right, you aren’t guaranteed the result you want. We know that better than any team in the league.
If our luck was going to change, it only seems appropriate that it would happen against the Pens.
But at the same time, man, why does it always have to be the Pens?
It’s not as strange playing against them now as it was when I first signed with the Caps. My first away game in Pittsburgh felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s gotten more normal over time, and now there’s only a handful of guys still there from when I was on the team. But I gotta say … it’s rough to lose two years in a row to your old team, only to see them go on to win it all.
Of all the Pens-Caps series I’ve been involved in — on both sides — I’d say this year’s was probably the closest. Actually, one of my buddies sent me something a couple of days ago that broke down our series. And just about every metric showed that the difference between our teams was razor thin. So ultimately it came down to having a few bounces go our way. (And also Braden Holtby standing on his head over and over.) That was all we needed.
Just look at overtime of Game 6. Tom Kühnhackl hits the far post with a laser. We avoided going to another Game 7 by basically an inch. When you win, you usually forget about those little things that happened to go your way. They don’t seem as important. But when you lose, it’s those moments that torture you. Those are the plays that pop into your head at random times during the off-season and make you feel sick to your stomach.
After last year’s loss to the Pens, we were completely shattered. What I couldn’t get over, and might never get over, was what a missed opportunity it was. We had such a great team — a complete team — and even then, it hadn’t been enough.
I think losing like that so many times in a row would have been enough to crater some teams from the inside. In other organizations, you might have seen more finger-pointing between coaches and players. But the thing with Barry is that he’s never been a guy who separated his job from ours. When we’ve won, he gives everyone credit. And when we’ve lost, especially after we’ve lost a tough one, he never puts the full blame on the players.
He was one of the people who drew me to Washington when I was a free agent — and I’d never even met him before. I’d seen how hard his guys had played for him in Nashville. But you know what impressed me the most? Whenever I asked guys who had played for him what he was like, the first thing they would always say was, “Really great person.” And they were right.
Over the summer he spoke with every player on the roster to get feedback from them on last season. The guy had just coached us to one of the best records in team history and he still wanted to know what we thought he could do better. He wanted everyone to know they were part of whatever the next step forward was for the organization. He didn’t need to do that. He constantly shows us that we’re in this together.
Even after going through all that disappointment, we’re still a group of guys coached by someone who cares about us and we all really enjoy playing together.
I remember on the plane back from Pittsburgh last week, Oshie and I were talking and he was joking about how upset he was that the young guys must think this is all normal. Our biggest boost has come from those players who are completely unattached to our past failures. I can understand why it might be hard for some of our young guys to imagine that a lot of great players can go their whole careers without making it this far in the playoffs. They probably don’t fully understand what it means for an entire city to wait more than 7,000 days to be in a position like this.
We can try all we want to remind those guys that this moment is special and that they should really savor it, but I know it’s impossible for them to really, truly understand. It’s hard to really know how good it feels to win at this time of the year until you go through how awful it feels to lose.
But that kind of touches on the best part of where we’re at: It doesn’t matter how we got here — we’re here now. We have a rare opportunity ahead of us that nobody is taking for granted. We have an organization and city that has been ready to win for a long time.
And, oh yeah, we got Ovi.