I may be the last person to jump upon this bandwagon, but after a recent interview in which Olaf Kolzig said that Alexander Ovechkin needs to drop the rock star act and concentrate on hockey, I can’t help but think that it’s time for both Ovie and the Capitals to start looking at ways to end their partnership after a great run to this point. Sure, it may seem a bit reactionary to one set of comments, but it wasn’t the back and forth between the two most recent faces of the Caps franchise that got me thinking this way. It was when Washington GM George McPhee said that Olie the Goalie wasn’t exactly off in thinking that way.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly a Washington Capitals insider. I have no clue what the actual atmosphere in the dressing room is. Though, I suspect it’s along the same lines as every other professional hockey locker room in that the atmosphere is distinctly normal. I’m willing to bet all of the players get along just fine, I’m willing to bet Dale Hunter has a good connection with those players – Bruce Boudreau did even though it didn’t save his job – and I’m willing to bet all of those guys believe that they are fully capable of winning the Stanley Cup this year. They showed a flash of it earlier this season with how they busted out of the gate and I, for one, believe that is a much closer reflection of their ability than the way they have played since.
Yet for all of these things which are likely true, though I’ve acknowledged there is the chance that it’s not, the one man we keep coming back to is Alexander Ovechkin. What’s wrong with him? Why isn’t he the Ovie we saw right before that series against Montreal? Isn’t it amazing how that one series Washington lost changed the dynamic of that franchise so quickly? Had Jaroslav Halak not come alive at the first sign of elimination, who knows where the Capitals would be right now?
You’ll note that it was after that series that Ovechkin’s fame began to hit a fever pitch. He began appearing in new ad campaigns, he rode a zamboni in Times Square, and 24/7 probably didn’t help his overall exposure. Let’s face it: Alexander Ovechkin became the face of the modern game. Sure, he rubs a lot of people the wrong way but at the end of the day he’s one of the best players of this generation. He goes out there, competes and has fun. The problem with him in our collective eyes is that he isn’t living up to the praise we have heaped on him.
For a stretch he was the most dominant player in the game and two out of three people would have likely picked him to lead their team over Sidney Crosby and every other player in hockey. Here we are just three years later and Crosby has a Cup ring, a gold medal and the total respect of every rational hockey fan. Ovechkin has become an opening act, a memory of what was. He’s not Alexander the Great. He’s the guy with his head in a locker.
I love Ovechkin for just that. In many ways he is a throwback to when hockey was fun and when personalities reined supreme. Now, the extreme conditioning of hockey development programs has players sapped of their personality in front of a microphone by the time they’re 16. Jeremy Roenick isn’t coming back to the NHL any time soon, and they just don’t make them like that anymore. An elite player with top level ability and personality to spare is unheard of nowadays.
Ovechkin is being punished for his exuberance, not only by fans and media, but by his own organization. He’s not the strong, silent leader of hockey ideals. Many see him as nothing more than a goof. He’s not a true captain like a Stevie Yzerman. Ovechkin simply can’t be “professional” enough to lead his team to a championship – just another talented guy who thinks it’s about him.
With all of this on the table, I’m willing to bet that if you sat down with Ovechkin and talked hockey and life with the guy off camera in a coffee shop somewhere, you would come away with a much different perspective of both him and his approach to the game. Nothing drives me more insane in the world of Ovechkin analysis than when so-called hockey experts and insiders state unequivocally that Ovechkin isn’t enough of a professional to accomplish anything meaningful in his career. Many of these folks conveniently dismiss any notion that they may be hypocrites for directing that type of accusation at Ovechkin without reflecting on their professionalism during their playing careers or currently as journalists. That, however, is a debate for another day.
The point at hand here is that Ovechkin does things his own way. He has been a lightning rod for criticism since his days playing against Crosby and Canada in the World Juniors (not exactly the best way to make friends around these parts). Yet, he goes out there, performs at a high level and has fun every step of the way. There’s nothing wrong with that.
He has been in the NHL for just seven seasons and has already potted over 300 goals. I can’t help but wonder how things might be different for Ovechkin if he were stripped of the stigma that comes with being a Russian player. Take Daniel Alfredsson for example. As of February 17, they both have an equal number of Stanley Cups (0), they are both the faces of their respective franchises, yet one is heralded for being a “class act” or a “true leader” and one of the stars of this era while the other is a star, yes, but unprofessional. Earlier this season Alfredsson was given a hero’s celebration for scoring his 400th goal and as of today he sits roughly 80 goals ahead of Ovechkin despite playing roughly 600 more games. That’s not meant as an attack on Alfredsson, it’s merely for perspective on how we measure players. I have a tough time believing that Alfredsson would have been any less successful had he shot more commercials or celebrated goals more exuberantly during his heyday. I have an equally difficult time believing that Ovechkin is a less effective hockey player because he does, in fact, do those things and serve as an ambassador for the game to markets where it’s not at the forefront of the sporting consciousness.
I don’t know if trading Ovechkin would make anything better for him, but I do know for a fact that it would make the Washington Capitals a worse hockey team and that ought to be the concern of George McPhee. For those of you who are convinced that Ovechkin isn’t “clutch” enough: there was a time when the knock against a man I reference earlier in here, Steve Yzerman, was that he couldn’t win the big one. It took him 13 seasons to pull it off and now he’s considered as clutch as they come. If it took Steve Yzerman 13 tries to get ONE, maybe it isn’t so bad for Ovechkin after all.