DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Olympic flame was lit in ancient Olympia in Greece on Sunday and now it begins the long journey to Sochi, Russia, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics. There is a lot riding on this for Russia, especially in one of its favorite sports, hockey.
ALEX OVECHKIN: It's very important, you know. It's our nationality and, you know, everybody loves hockey back home.
GREENE: That's Washington Capitals player Alex Ovechkin who like many stars in the National Hockey League will take a break in the regular season to play in the Winter Games. Ovechkin is captain of Russia's Olympic team and also one of the first athletes to carry the torch over the weekend. At the last Olympics, Russia, stacked with NHL stars, had to watch as another country took the gold medal.
(SOUNDBITE OF GAME BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) scores. It's over. The gold medal to Canada.
GREENE: This year, Alex Ovechkin is facing pressure not just to win gold for Russia, but also to win the first Stanley Cup for the Washington Capitals. Last year he was MVP in the NHL. He's starting his ninth season with the Caps. We caught up with Alex Ovechkin yesterday after Capitals practice. How important are these Olympics for Russia, Alex Ovechkin?
I mean this is the first time that your country has ever hosted the Winter Games.
OVECHKIN: Oh, it's very important, you know. It's huge for country. I know lots of people back home are very excited and can't wait when it's gonna start.
GREENE: You've talked about some of your disappointment in how Russia's hockey team performed at the Winter Games in Vancouver last time. Do you feel like things will be different this time?
OVECHKIN: Well, I hope it's going to be different. We just have to change the momentum because I played in two Olympic games and we don't any medals. And we just have to change it up and regroup our self and get ready for a huge tournament.
GREENE: There has been some criticism from athletes from around the world about Russia's new anti-homosexual laws. Some gay athletes have said they're worried they might face discrimination or even be arrested at the games. Do they have a reason to be worried?
OVECHKIN: No, I don't think so. To be honest with you, man, it's just a situation when people there have rights. And I'm just hockey player. I'm just support everybody and everybody have their own mind.
GREENE: The Washington Capitals' publicist had actually insisted that we not ask Ovechkin anything about Russia's new anti-gay laws, a window into how this might be a touchy issue for Russia and its athletes as they prepare for the Games. Now, back to a less controversial topic. We asked Ovechkin how he thinks both his squads, the Caps and Team Russia, will fare.
OVECHKIN: I hope they're going to win, both teams are going to win.
GREENE: Gold medal and Stanley Cup?
GREENE: That's setting the bar high.
OVECHKIN: Yes. All the time.
GREENE: Alex Ovechkin from the Washington Capitals and also will be playing on Russia's Olympic team, thanks so much for talking to us and good luck.
OVECHKIN: Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.