Photo: Melissa Schaab
“I think he said card,” Melissa Schaab said to her son Matthew. “I think he’s going to give Ann a card. Not a car.”
“But play the video again.”
That was the scene late Sunday night at the Schaab’s Laurel, MD home. Melissa’s 15-year-old son had been sent a video clip from his friends. It was of Alex Ovechkin speaking to reporters after his fifth career All-Star Game. The future Hall of Fame forward had mentioned Matthew’s sister.
The moment was unexpected, surreal.
“He means card. He’s going to send Ann a card.”
A 2015 Honda Accord is $22,105. A “Thinking of you” card by Hallmark is maybe $3.99.
He couldn’t mean car.
“Then I got on the computer and googled a little bit and saw more about it,” Melissa said. “It was all just sort of unbelievable. This is crazy. This is not happening.”
“Don’t pick me”
As All-Star weekend began in Columbus on Friday night, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin was not concerned with being picked first overall in the All-Star Fantasy Draft. After three MVPs and four Rocket Richard trophies, Ovechkin’s already accomplished a lot individually. It’s whatever. Ovechkin was more concerned about having a good time with his peers. Also winning a car.
Honda, one of the NHL’s biggest sponsors, usually gives cars to the MVP of the All-Star Game and the final selection of the All-Star Fantasy Draft. On Friday night, Ovechkin begged Team Foligno and Team Toews to let him be hockey’s Mr. Irrelevant. The whole thing seemed like a joke at the time. According to an R-Sport interview last year, Ovechkin has a fleet of seven cars at home. His parents don’t understand why he needs so many. No one does.
Ovechkin held up a handwritten note over his face while he was interviewed by Pierre McGuire backstage. “I want to be last. I need a car.” It was a joke.
“I’m still here,” Ovechkin interrupted while McGuire tried to interview Mark Giordano. “I need a car.” The crowd laughed.
The routine lasted nearly an hour until Team Foligno assistant captain Patrick Kane selected Ovechkin third to last. One spot away from getting a car (Honda gave a car to the final picks of each team). Ovechkin, with clear disappointment on his face, cursed at Kane.
Two days later, Ovechkin found the Honda that would be awarded to the All-Star MVP in the parking lot. He posted a picture of it on Instagram with the caption, “I still need it!! I will pick u up after all star game ))))haha”
While Ovechkin put up a team-high three assists. His linemate Ryan Johansen was named MVP. The Russian machine failed.
But, ninety minutes after the game, Honda presented Ovechkin with a giant key.
After learning that the Russian forward was trying to win a car for Ann and her team the Washington Ice Dogs, which provides special needs kids and adults with the opportunity to play hockey, Honda chose to give away one more car.
Twitter erupted over Ovechkin’s act of kindness. Every major hockey site published a story. No one saw it coming. No one had an inkling of what Ovechkin had in mind, including Ann’s family and the founder of the Ice Dogs, Mike Hickey.
“She reenacts parts of the date all the time”
GIF by @myregularface
Ovechkin met Ann on September 11th, 2014, a few days before training camp began. Ovechkin hosted a private skate with 60 children with developmental disabilities at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, including a bunch of kids from the Ice Dogs and the Nova Cool Cats. The children were split into three squads.
“I had told her that Alex Ovechkin was going to come out,” Schaab said. “Ann knew exactly who he was. She knew her hockey players. We’re pretty big Caps fans. Her older brothers both play hockey. We’ve been to games.”
“On the way there, I asked her, ‘What are you going to talk to him about if you get to meet him?'” Schaab recalled. “Ann said, ‘I think we should have him over for dinner.’ She wanted him to come over to our house to play kickball. Things like that. I knew what she was thinking, but I never thought she would skate over to him and ask him to dinner.”
During the third session, Ann, confident as can be, skated up to Ovechkin, a confident man himself. Ann asked him on a sushi date.
The move didn’t surprise Hickey. “She’s not afraid to use her stick out on the ice to warn people,” he said. “She’s all hockey player, she’s full of confidence. I think that’s why at the skate, she had no problem going up to Ovi and asking him out on a date for sushi. She’s just that bold. She’s an amazing little girl. She knew who Ovi was, she knew that her dad idolizes him. In their house, Ovi is all they talk about.”
At first, Ovechkin wasn’t quite sure what to say. He played it off. Engrossed by the event, he didn’t linger too long on one kid at the expense of the others.
Ann’s positivity and bravado left an mark on Ovechkin. He couldn’t stop thinking about it on the way home. Later, the Capitals reached out to Ann in her family. They would have that sushi date after all.
To some, it might have seemed like a PR stunt: win Ovechkin and the team some points with the public in a season where they’d host the Winter Classic. The team had missed the playoffs a season before.
Except Ovechkin got as much out of that day as Ann did.
“He was so gracious, funny, and sweet,” Schaab gushed. “Getting to drive to the rink in his car was really unbelievable. That was such a twist on the whole day. He asked her what kind of music she liked. He gave her his phone so she could DJ the music through the sound system. They were talking about food, and what TV she liked to watch, and she was asking him questions like ‘How many pants do you own?'” He was talking about how he had to wear suits to the game but he doesn’t prefer to do that. There were so many little personal things that he shared with her, that I thought was really sweet.”
“Hours later he referenced things that they had talked about in the car,” she said. “His head was totally in the date.”
Since then, Hickey hasn’t noticed much of a difference in Ann at practice. She’s still the same brash and sweet girl that she was before. She hasn’t bragged about the date to her teammates. But the impact is there, behind closed doors, at home.
“She reenacts parts of that day all the time,” Schaab said. “She has set up parts of the house as a locker room. We got to see the locker room at Verizon and we got to see the locker room at Kettler, so she will set up stalls in a U shape, which is what the locker room looks like. She’ll get the mini sticks, and she’ll grab everybody’s gear out of the garage, and she’ll set up the goalie gear in the corner where Holtby had his things.
“She’s Ovi. She’ll get game day dress on, put a nice shirt and a tie on and say, ‘I’ve got a game today,’ and go into the locker room.”
Ann relives certain parts of the date. “We have to reenact the part where she’ll be Ovi and I’ll be her, and she’ll help me out of the car, because he was so polite that day,” Schaab said. “She’ll make tickets out of paper and she’ll hand me the jersey that he gave her, and she’ll have flowers in her hands. We do a lot of reenacting of that day.”
It was also a galvanizing moment for Ovechkin. Over the summer, Ovechkin and his long-time fiancee Maria Kirilenko split up in Russia. Since returning to North America, Ovi has mentored English-non-speaking teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov during his first full season in the NHL. He fulfilled Lauren Santora’s wish. He secretly helped seven orphanages in Russia. He communicated with fans on Instagram, and given away sticks and pucks. It’s a list of good deeds and accomplishments that should make him a front-runner for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy at season’s end.
The car is secondary
As of Monday night, neither Hickley or the Schaab family had been contacted by the Caps. They know as soon as the team comes home mid-week, they will. When I asked Hickey what the Ice Dogs planned to do with the $20k-plus automobile, he was unsure.
“It remains to be seen what the need is going to be for,” he said. “Our kids pretty much are brought in by parents or group homes, so it’s yet to be seen what the use is going to be. There’s a lot to talk about and work out.”
For Hickey, it wasn’t the car that mattered. It was that Ovechkin helped give exposure to the Ice Dogs and the American Special Hockey Association on a national stage.
“Any time I see these kids happy and enjoying life, it fulfills everything I do,” he said. “I don’t have any kids myself. Parents ask me, ‘You don’t have any kids with special needs?’ I probably wouldn’t be able to do this if I did.”
Hickey started playing hockey when he was seven-years-old. “I played around this area,” he said. “I think I started back in 1970 before the Capitals were even around. There were only four travel teams in the area. Nobody really played hockey here.”
Later in life, it became his dream to give back to this community through the sport he loved.
“I was working at a special needs school,” he said. “I heard about this special needs hockey program in St. Louis. I wanted to start one here.”
Hickey became the founder of the Ice Dogs. He’s also the president of the ASHA.
“Every day you see the quality of life improve for these kids. That’s what makes it worth it.”
Hickey stressed that the ASHA is less about competitive hockey and more a therapy program. They don’t put pressure on the kids. They just want them to have fun. They can continue playing as adults.
The car was not what was important to Ann’s family either.
“Ann was just excited to hear her name,” Schaab said. “I don’t think she understood the significance of a car, what a big donation that is. There was one gentleman that interviewed [Ovechkin] after the game and he said something about ‘a very special girl named Ann’ and her face just lit up when she heard that. She said, ‘That’s me. He’s talking about me.'”
“I think that that was more significant to her than the car.”
On Monday afternoon, the family welcomed ABC 7 into their home to do an interview for the 5 PM news. Ann confidently held the mic and told her story. She enjoyed every minute. When they watched the segment live on TV, Ann flashed a big grin.
— Alex Parker (@ParkerSports) January 26, 2015
“It just surprised me that in the midst of all that activity going on, for Ovi to stop and give a shout-out to Ann and to special hockey was just amazing to me,” said Schaab.
To be fair though, Ann and her zest for life is hard to forget.
This story would not have been possible without Katie Brown’s (@katiebhockey) help in transcribing. Also, thank you to Julie Roemele for helping me reach out to The Ice Dogs.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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