Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ovechkin Owes it to Hockey to be Himself

Okay, so I grew up in the D.C. area and have been a Capitals fan since Day 1. I’m stating that bias up front.

But, as someone who also has played and coached hockey since I was five years old, I want to state this fact, which I don’t even consider open for argument: If you had to choose one player in the world to start a professional hockey franchise with, it would be Ovechkin. I say that with all due respect to Crosby, Malkin, Chara, Tavares and the rest. There is no one who plays with the combination of speed, skill, desire and physicality that he brings to the ice. In fact, he may stand alone in NHL annals when it comes to possessing that complete package (That is open for debate!).

In recent days Ovechkin has alternately been painted by many fans and media personnel as a bad guy, a dirty player, reckless and/or careless. I’m going to fall back on the Tiger Woods argument here: Do you know any 24-year-olds who are a bit reckless and careless? Who think that maybe they are invincible? Who drive their cars too fast or don’t wear their seat belts or have a few too many beers before driving? How did you behave at age 24? How do you behave now?

I have the good fortune of seeing Ovechkin on an almost daily basis and observing how hard he practices, how he is appreciated by his teammates, how much he cares about being the best, how he gives his best effort every single night, how excited he gets when other players score and how much he hates to lose. I also get the insider’s point of view at times since one of my former bosses, a former intern of mine and a friend whose son I coach in baseball and hockey all work for the Caps.

While I know that many of you in Philly, Pittsburgh, New York, Buffalo and now Carolina won’t agree with me, Ovechkin is not a dirty player and he’s certainly not a bad guy. He happens to play the game at a speed that, to be frank, is not normal by even NHL standards. He’s all-out, all the time, and at 225-plus lbs., when you are moving that fast, your ability to stop or turn on a dime and to swerve at the last second to avoid a potentially damaging hit is extremely difficult.

All year long we’ve heard about how Tom Brady is being over-protected and receiving the royal treatment. Football fans have openly wondered how a large, athletic person moving at full speed and ready to engage another player can stop his momentum on the spot and not follow through on a hit. Ovechkin, while not 250 or 350 lbs., is still quite a load. And he’s on skates. On top of that – and I’m just guessing here – I think he’s moving a little faster than Albert Haynesworth. Does anyone really think that Ovechkin would want to subject his knee to the type of impact and trauma it was exposed to in his most recent hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason? C’mon man!

And for those who are claiming that this is his third incident since last season’s playoffs, let’s be real. I happen to be a Sergei Gonchar fan from his days with the Caps, but he has been known to run from contact and turn the puck over when pressured. Penguins fans should remember first-hand how he gave their team the puck and a playoff series win against Washington with an overtime turnover years ago. Gonchar caused that injury by trying to basically run and hide from Ovechkin, who apparently tortured him in Russia during the lockout year. Similarly, Gleason saw the freight train coming and made a quick, athletic move at the last second. Don’t get me wrong, I would have done the same (not as athletically, of course), so it’s not Gleason’s fault. But I’m just not convinced that Ovechkin, at that moment, could have done much to avoid the contact. And as for his recent boarding major, there are three to five hits a game that go uncalled and are worse than that one.

Don’t get me wrong, the officials had no choice but to penalize Ovechkin for the Gleason hit, and by rule, the league really had no choice but to suspend him. I’m not debating that, but he’s simply not a dirty player. He doesn’t use his stick to restrain people or carve guys up. He doesn’t fight. He’s never jumped a defenseless, unsuspecting opponent or sucker-punched a player engaged with another opponent like Sydney Crosby has. And I definitely don’t consider Crosby a dirty player.

Hockey is a contact sport. Fans and sports reporters everywhere complain on a regular basis about professional athletes. They get paid too much and don’t care. They don’t work hard every night. They don’t talk to the media. They have no personality. They don’t promote the game. They don’t love to play.

Wake up everyone! We have found a guy who does all of that on a daily basis. Ovechkin gives 100 percent all the time, loves to play, celebrates for his teammates as much or more than for himself, wants to win badly, strives to the be best in the game, pokes fun at himself in commercials and in the media and promotes the sport.

He drove a Zamboni down Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and cruised D.C. on a Segway with several teammates for the love of God. Maybe he’s a 24-year-old who thinks he’s invincible. If that’s his greatest flaw, then perhaps we are all guilty – or have been – at some level. No matter how you slice it, his style of play and personality are good for the game and good for professional sports. We need more Alex Ovechkins, not fewer.

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