by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Ann Schaab walked slowly around the Washington Capitals locker room going from stall to stall searching for the one that belonged to Alex Ovechkin.
When she finally came to it, she stopped and called out to her mother, Melissa, "Ovi!"
Schaab, 12, met Ovechkin in 2014 when Ovechkin and the Capitals hosted a skating session for children from the American Special Hockey Association at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Schaab, who has Down syndrome, asked Ovechkin to go on a sushi date with her following a Capitals preseason game, and a friendship was born.
Ovechkin hosted his third annual skating event with ASHA on Friday, and Schaab, who plays for the Washington Ice Dogs, was back among the more than 60 players who participated.
"Me and Ovi are special friends," Ann Schaab said. "He helps me a lot. He helps my team and he helps my friends play hockey."
Ovechkin, 31, appeared to enjoy the event as much as the players. The Capitals captain offered encouragement and plenty of fist bumps to the players while helping run drills.
"It's fun," Ovechkin said. "I can see they're smiling. They ask me questions. It's always fun. It's nice to see them smile."
Founded in 2005 for players with developmental disabilities, ASHA has grown into a nationwide program with more than 2,000 players in 60 programs in 54 cities. The programs represented Friday included the Ice Dogs, Baltimore Saints, Montgomery Cheetahs and Nova Cool Cats.
"The big thing with our players is we're therapeutic-based, not competitive," ASHA president Mike Hickey said. "We're trying to instill confidence in them and teach them responsibility and socialization, and this is a real shot in the arm as far as confidence. They go to school tomorrow and tell all their friends that they skated with Alex Ovechkin. So it's kind of a big deal."
Hickey said Ovechkin's skating event is invaluable to the players and to ASHA because of the exposure it creates for the program.
"This draws a lot of awareness to what we're trying to do, and it's incredible for how people view us, that they know who we are," Hickey said.
For his contributions to ASHA, which include donating a car following the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Columbus, Ovechkin received the 2016 ASHA Inspiration Award from Hickey on Friday to chants of "Ovi! Ovi!" from the players. Former New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks defenseman Matt Carkner was the recipient in 2015.
"For these NHL players, a lot of this is obligations," Hickey said. "For Ovi, this isn't an obligation. He loves doing it the last three years. He has a smile on his face. He loves the kids, and they love him."
Ovechkin called it "special" to receive the award.
"I got lucky," he said. "I'm a professional hockey player. I just try to help the kids, and the organization does a great job to help me and help everybody around."
The Inspiration Award wasn't the only thing Ovechkin took home with him Friday. Schaab also presented him with a special gift in the Capitals locker room before they headed out to the ice.
By the time Ovechkin came out to greet her, Schaab was sitting in Nicklas Backstrom's locker stall after having tried on Backstrom's helmet. Although Ovechkin is her "special friend," Schaab wears No. 19 because of Backstrom.
Ovechkin doesn't seem to mind. He welcomed Schaab with a big hug before the two sat down to talk about life and hockey. That's when Schaab showed him the children's book, "Drop the Puck, Let's Play Hockey."
After reading about the friendship between Ovechkin and Schaab, and meeting Ann at an Ice Dogs fundraiser in April, author Jayne J. Jones Beehler decided to incorporate them into the third installment of her "Drop the Puck" series. In the latest book, one of the returning characters, Blaine, the manager of the Minnesota Bears youth team who also has Down syndrome, joins an ASHA team.
When Blaine initially has trouble learning to skate, a new character named Ann lends a hand.
After meeting Schaab, Jones thought, "There's no better ASHA player to highlight this from the heart than Ann."
"So Ann friends him and skates over to Blaine, who is struggling from his first couple of marches on the ice," Jones said. "She friends him, helps him out, and we continue on the Ovi love affair a little bit because in the book Blaine asks Ann go for mini-donuts. Those are a Minnesota hot commodity. Then, Ann replies, 'I don't like mini-donuts. I prefer sushi.'"
Schaab opened the book to page 35 to show Ovechkin the illustration of her character helping Blaine. She then signed the page for Ovechkin.
"I will put it with all of my trophies," Ovechkin promised Schaab.
All of the proceeds from sales of the book through Nov. 7 will go to ASHA. Ovechkin, who has talked about starting a family with wife, Nastya, liked the idea of maybe someday reading the book to his children so they can learn about his friendship with Schaab.
"It's always nice when the kids love you and I love them," he said. "We have fun, we talked before the [skate], and it's great."