A few days before the Capitals season opener, I put on a hoodie and a pair of cargo shorts and drove to Crystal City, Virginia. RMNB had been invited to go behind the scenes of Alex Ovechkin’s latest project, a commercial promoting Ovi’s Wish Special for Papa John’s.
It turned out to be a memorable experience, and I regret wearing the cargo shorts.
Russian Machine Never Breaks was named as a nod and a wink to Alex Ovechkin. We cover try to hockey with the same enthusiasm that he plays with. And over the years, I’ve been asked by friends and family what the future Hall of Famer is like in real life, but there was a problem: I had never met him.
That changed on October 8, 2016, though, and I cannot emphasize this point enough: I did not expect to be introduced to him.
When I arrived, I met up with Amanda Bowen, RMNB photographer and intern Redskins photog, to make a gameplan for the shoot. I was greeted by members of Ovechkin’s entourage as well as the production team of the Hack|Stone Film Group and Executive Media Communications.
“Let’s get you inside so you can talk to Ovi,” Michael Bobys, COO of EMC, said, tossing me into the deep end. Ovi was taking a break from the first part of shooting.
I think most people would be excited to meet a hockey legend. I was, well, terrified.
I felt a kind of dread that’s hard to describe. Instead of feeling excitement for a Big Blog Moment, I felt like a putz. I thought of every article I had written about Ovechkin over the last seven years. Is he going to hate me for some of these? Is it weird I’ve covered his life down to what his favorite color is? (Yes.)
I made my way down the hallway. I peeked up to see Ovechkin sitting at the dining room table. His eyes met mine. Oh no. He sees me. What do you say to the person who you basically named a blog after? Sup, dude?
Before Bobys could make the introduction, the director walked in, yelled “we’re all set,” and ushered Ovechkin to the next scene.
Before I had arrived, I wasn’t sure if the commercial shoot would happen. Hurricane Matthew was churning off the east coast of South Carolina. The skies were overcast and spitting out a heavy mist.
The directors of the commercial had picked a quaint neighborhood community to shoot at — full of large single-family homes. The setting reminded me of the video game Paperboy.
The crew had covered the yard of the main location with a huge, clear piece of plastic. Ten thousand watts of lighting hung overhead. This setup, I was told, would counteract the gray sky, make scenes look sunnier in post-production. To keep the light stands from collapsing, production assistants had to constantly push the collecting water off an overhead tarp.
As shooting for the next scene began, I heard a tuckaTHUCKtuckaTHUCKtucka sound and looked down the road. Giant human Alex Ovechkin had acquired a tiny stick-shift car, now clunking up the road towards me.
Ovechkin, now wearing a black PIZZA shirt, pulled up to the production crew, stopped the car, and looked at us with a straight face. “Pizza’s here!” he said. The crew laughed.
Ovechkin was undeniably the star of the commercial, but the bright yellow 1985 Trabant 601 almost stole the show. This would be Adult Ovi’s pizza delivery vehicle.
“We really wanted to put Ovi into something ridiculously small and memorable, so we found the Trabant,” Bobys told me. “The Trabant was originally an East German car that became popular among tuners and rally racers in Russia. It is now also a favorite among antique car collectors in the US. Its nickname is Spark Plug on Wheels, and it runs on a two-stroke motor, where you have to mix the oil and gas together like a WeedEater. It has 25 horsepower.”
Shooting resumed. Ovechkin drove the car around the block a few times to give the director, Dan Hack, transition scenes to work with. At one point, pizza boxes were stacked on the hood of the car. Ovechkin drove away and the boxes fell off; imaginary pizzas inside ruined.
The premise of the commercial was Ovechkin’s childhood dream of becoming a pizza delivery boy. As an adult, Ovechkin would learn that he is awful at it, but, through the experience, he discovers his love and talent for hockey. Ovi then uses his success to help others.
After about 20 minutes of shooting the car, Ovechkin got out and walked over to the production crew. He stood right beside me.
“Hey, Ovi, this is Ian. He writes for RMNB,” Bobys said.
Ovechkin smiled. I reached out my hand.
“It’s really nice to meet you,” I said.
“I like your site,” he responded.
A few minutes later, we stood by each other again. Ovechkin had a question for me.
“Is this your house?” Ovechkin said, insinuating that I could afford an $800,000 home in downtown Arlington.
“Yes, I bought it with all the blog money,” I said.
Things went great from there. For the rest of the shoot, Ovechkin and I exchanged one-liners.
“What is a puck made out of?” Director Dan Hack asked Ovechkin.
“Rubber,” Ovechkin said.
“Vulcanized rubber,” I said, to be precise.
“He know more about hockey than I do,” concluded Ovechkin with a big smile.
“Ovi, just do a ridiculous laugh like HAHAHAHA,” Hack said to Ovechkin before another scene.
“Okay,” Ovechkin said.
“That should be easy for you,” I said.
“Imagine if I roll up to Kettler in this,” Ovechkin said, looking at the car.
“I think that’d be a good look,” I said.
“Do you think owner let me have it?” Ovechkin said.
“For you, Ovi, I think so.”
During downtime, Ovechkin would retreat to a more private area. He watched Russian-language videos on speaker. At other times, he listened to rap or electronic dance music.
The last shoot involved everyone moving to a house at the end of the street. Ovechkin would knock on the door, deliver a pizza, and enrage a customer with poor service. “Pizza’s here!” Ovechkin said over and over.
After about ten takes, we moved to the sidewalk, where a makeshift Bauer hockey net was set up. Ovechkin picked up a foam puck with a kid sized stick. He started puck juggling. (Full video and GIFs here.)
“TJ Oshie style,” Ovechkin said, trying and failing to kick the puck back into the air.
Noticing my ooh’s and ahh’s, Ovechkin took the stick-handling tricks to another level, doing a lacrosse or light-saber-like move where he twirled his arms while the puck stayed glue to the blade. He nearly hit me in the face at one point. It didn’t seem real. It looked like special effects from a movie.
“You try it,” Ovechkin said once he was finished. He gave me the hockey stick and took my phone before I could say anything. “It’s easy. You just swing your wrists like this. It’s a feeling.”
And Ovechkin filmed me, but pressed the play button twice. The video ended after a half second. Unaware, I tried his move. The puck immediately fell off the blade. Even in that one-second video, I had failed.
“You are the worst teacher in the world,” I said.
Hack noticed Ovechkin’s tricks and asked to film it as a new scene for the commercial. Ovechkin obliged. He did it in one take.
For the final scene, Ovechkin ripped a slap shot down the street. It was the moment in the commercial that he realizes his real talent was hockey.
After a few more takes, that was a wrap, and I received a gift. Ovechkin handed me his hockey stick. “Keep practicing,” he said.
He assigned me another task. Ovechkin signed the pizza boxes and the other shirts used in the commercial. He asked me to auction off the items to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. By this point, Ovechkin’s Wish Special through PapaJohns.com had already raised $36,000. He wanted to raise even more. (Here’s a link to the auction items.)
Ovechkin went inside. He came out wearing a suit. He said he was going to the ballet with his wife Nastya.
“It was so nice to finally meet you,” I said to Ovechkin as he walked out.
He shook my hand.
I put the hockey stick in the backseat of my car. I decided right then that Ovi’s stick would be the first present I would give to my upcoming baby. Hopefully, the RMNB baby will be able to do more with it than I can.
Photos: Amanda Bowen. Video editing: Sean Morrow.
– The short and long-form versions of the Ovechkin Wish commercial
– Ovechkin casually puck-juggles during downtime of the shoot
– Props from the commercial, including Ovi’s PIZZA shirts, are up for auction to benefit Make-A-Wish
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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