ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (AP) — Alex Ovechkin said he is thrilled to kick off Russia's Olympic torch relay for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi — a mammoth effort covering the country's nine time zones that will include a trip to outer space.
"I'm going to be probably smiling all the time and I'm going to remember this stuff for all of my life," the NHL star said late Saturday after arriving in Ancient Olympia for Sunday's flame lighting ceremony.
The 28-year-old Washington Capitals winger will be the first Russian to run with the torch on Sunday after 18-year-old Greek alpine skier Ioannis Antoniou will take it out of the ancient stadium in southern Greece, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics.
"I going to tell my kids, my grandkids, and it's probably one of the biggest moments in my life," Ovechkin said.
The 6-foot-3 hockey player said he was not worried about a potential match against his U.S.-based teammates.
"I'm playing in the NHL right now," he said. "I'm playing against lots of my friends, with players from different countries there so, you know, it's kind of going to be normal."
Ovechkin sidestepped controversy over Russia's record on gay rights, saying only that he was looking forward to the competition.
"To be honest with you, I'm a hockey player and I'm not (into) politics. In this kind of situation you'd have to ask those (in) politics."
Games organizers described Ovechkin as a natural choice to represent Russia's campaign to increase its visibility around the world.
In remarks to The Associated Press and at a news conference, Dmitry Chernyshenko, chief organizer of Sochi 2014, described the hockey player as the obvious choice.
"From the beginning of this effort, he was our proud ambassador for the games ... beyond the borders of Russia and this is why it's absolutely natural that he was selected," Chernyshenko said.
"We saw how popular he was in Russia and abroad ... He's charismatic and he has a great smile."
The Russian leg of the torch relay is set to cover 40,390 miles before the Feb. 7-23 Winter Games.
"The Olympic flame is about to begin an epic journey ... traveling all nine time zones of Russia in 123 days. It will be carried by 14,000 proud torchbearers," Chernyshenko said.
"The Olympic torch will travel by reindeer, dog sled, snow mobiles, boats and even hot air balloon and many other vehicles, and of course by foot, by car and tens of thousands of kilometers by train, by plane."
The flame would be carried into space on Nov. 7, he said.
"It will go to the North Pole by nuclear power icebreaker and yes it will travel to space ... and the same torch will be used to light the flame during the opening ceremony."
A practice run for the torch lighting was held midday Saturday.
Hundreds of tourists watched, took photographs and clapped as actresses dressed as ancient priestesses used the sun's rays, focused in a parabolic mirror to light the flame that will be kept in reserve for the actual ceremony to be held Sunday and attended by Thomas Bach, elected this month as the new president of the International Olympic Committee.
Saturday's rehearsal went off with one minor hitch: The first torchbearer, Greek Antoniou, had trouble with his torch and waited patiently but in vain for it to light.
"We didn't know they were going to use the torch in the rehearsal, so the gas bottle had been removed," Chernyshenko said. "It's been built to work in some very difficult terrain and freezing temperatures. So it will be fine tomorrow, you will see."