STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Alex Ovechkin is the first NHL player to lace up custom-painted skates, though in a sport that discourages freedom of expression he may not turn out to be much of a trendsetter.
The Washington Capitals superstar celebrated the team’s Russian Heritage Night Thursday with skates bearing Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, the U.S. Capitol and Russian and American flags. He could only wear them for pregame warmups after receiving special permission from the NHL.
“Obviously I want to play with them, but the league said no,” Ovechkin said. “I think they’re sick. They’re pretty cool. It’s something new. Nobody done it before. It’s nice to be first guy.”
Ovechkin is following football players, who have embraced custom cleats for everything from breast cancer awareness to Odell Beckham Jr.’s tribute to late basketball broadcaster Craig Sager . The NFL fines players for wearing unapproved cleats, but also instituted a “My Cause My Cleats” week where players were encouraged to express themselves with their footwear.
If that day is coming in the NHL, it won’t be any time soon. Outside of goaltender masks, the league has very strict uniform rules and deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he doesn’t expect that this will result in more widespread exceptions being made.
Ovechkin, who wore custom-painted skates at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, isn’t your typical buttoned-up hockey player, so it’s no surprise that he and agent David Abrutyn were interested in being on the cutting edge of custom skates.
They reached out to Buffalo artists Napoleon “Polo” Kerber and Nicholas Avery, who do cleats for Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, Bills running back LeSean McCoy and dozens of other NFL players, and after some consultation they agreed on a pair that honored the Russian winger’s hometown and city he has played in since 2005.
“They just wanted to do something that was very bright, very flashy and something that had never been done before,” Kerber said by phone Wednesday.
“Ovechkin I think was perfect to do it just from the standpoint of even by him wearing his yellow laces, he stands out a ton. I think if anybody was going to do it, I’m not surprised that it was Alex.”
Ovechkin’s skates will be auctioned off with the money going to the American Special Hockey Association . As of Thursday evening, the highest bid was $3,400.
“It’s a good thing,” Ovechkin said. “We do it for charity, and all the money goes to kids.”
A few other players have reached out to Kerber to express interest in custom skates, but he said they — and even owners and executives aware of the Ovechkin project — wanted to wait to see the reaction.
Inside the Capitals’ locker room, the reaction was positive with some guarded optimism that it might become more widespread at some point in the future.
“The football players, they get slapped on the wrist too for doing something on their cleats, but it’s an expression of who you are,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.
“A lot of times it’s a tribute to something, and I think that’s very cool. In the NHL it’s a little more uniform and everyone kind of has all the same gear, but any way you can kind of stand out and do something that represents you I think is a good thing.”
Kerber and Avery didn’t have any templates or other artists to turn to and after trial and error with figuring out the dynamics of how skates differ from cleats hope to do more in the future.
“It would be amazing if it could turn into something as big as what goalie masks are,” Kerber said. “That had to start somewhere, and you could say the same thing about this. I don’t know what it’s going to turn into.”
Understanding this particular design of the Russian and U.S. capitals might engender criticism given the controversy swirling around President Donald Trump and his administration, Kerber said Ovechkin never intended for the skates to be any kind of political statement. Just to be safe, Kerber said he picked the Capitol Building instead of the White House.
“It still represents Washington, D.C., it represents the name of his team and it’s not as, I guess, blunt as throwing the White House on the side,” Kerber said.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .
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