Don’t @ me, Penguins faithful.
The Washington Capitals are a win away from clinching the Stanley Cup, and here’s the thing: Alex Ovechkin deserves to have his name hammered into that silver monster at least once in his career.
It’s understandable that Penguins fans might be resistant to that idea. That’s a product of the rivalry between the clubs, one that predates Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and has been heavily dominated by the Penguins.
Let’s take a closer look, with the hope that a more pure admiration of sports filtered through the shining light that is sportsmanship might convince at least some that it’s OK to appreciate Ovechkin a smidgen and allow that someone with his talent, his accomplishments and – brace yourself – his personality — should have his day with the Cup.
It’s not a stretch to label Ovechkin the premier goal-scorer of this generation, and one of the best ever. He’s 32, has 607 goals in 1,003 games, has a shot so overpowering that unscreened goaltenders are often helpless, and has won the Rocket Richard goals title seven times. So far. He’s also won the Art Ross overall points mantel once, the Hart Trophy three times and has been named the league’s best by his fellow NHL players three times. And he’s done it as a right winger who converted to the left side mid-career.
He seems to be in line to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP any day.
And, yes, Ovechkin beat out Crosby for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Hey, Sid has three Cups. So far.
About that personality, which is really a sticking point for Penguins fans, right? (Unless it’s pure jealousy, which the Crosby hatred in Philly seems to be rooted in, and surely you’re better than that.)
If you’ve watched the final, you’ve probably noticed that the folks at NBC have pointedly jumped to Ovechkin reaction shots a lot, and there has been some oohing and aahing over his engagement and care level. Take it from someone who has gotten to know Ovechkin a little bit over the years, that’s not made-for-TV drivel. That’s capturing real moments.
What’s He Really Like?
The on-ice highlights and stats are easy to find and examine. How about some off-ice insights:
*The first time Ovechkin played in Pittsburgh, Nov. 22, 2005, the public relations staff set up a brief interview scrum with a handful of Pittsburgh reporters outside the visitors’ locker room at the old arena. Can’t recall if it was after the morning skate or if the Capitals practiced there a day before the game.
Also can’t recall the exact questions, and there were just a couple because his English was pretty raw then, but the memorable moment came when Ovechkin finished and a huge, satisfied grin came over his face. Not at all smug. Just pure giddiness that he was able to manage the questions and accommodate us.
*In Beijing during the 2008 Summer Games, Russia brought in several of its star athletes to promote the (then upcoming) Sochi Games in 2014. Those athletes were at a large soiree at a sprawling complex along a lake one evening. At one point, Ovechkin was sitting alone on a wall overlooking a pond in a dimly lit portion of the complex. He wasn’t partying with the others (maybe that came later) but seemed content to just hang out.
I approached him and introduced myself as a reporter from Pittsburgh who had interviewed him several times. His eyes lit up. “Pittsburgh? Say hi to Crosby.” I asked about Malkin, a fellow Russian who was not in Beijing. “Him, too,” Ovechkin said.
*After a Capitals workout at their suburban D.C. practice facility during one of the teams’ playoff series some years ago, I asked Ovechkin if he thought his team was loose. He handled it awkwardly, and a Washington reporter later told me he was pretty sure Ovechkin had misunderstood and thought the question was about whether his club would lose – a really crappy thing for a writer to ask. The next possible opportunity, also during that series, I approached Ovechkin alone and explained and apologized. He was gracious.
*After our quick exchange in China, Ovechkin would often spot me in a crowd of reporters or behind the scenes an events such as the NHL awards and would say hello or start a brief conversation. A few years ago, we ended up walking out of the arena together following the morning skates the day of a Capitals game in Pittsburgh. I told him I was heading to a sports writing class I was teaching. He seemed to find that interesting and asked me to say hello to the students.
This is not to say that just because a star athlete is nice to people, the fans of a rival club should pull for him to win a championship. It’s simply to show that Ovechkin is a decent, if not perfect, guy. (I’m leaving politics out of this because that’s a separate issue from sports.)
A Darker Moment
Let’s not forget earlier in their careers, Ovechkin spent a season head-hunting Malkin, and viciously, in their teams’ games. Something happened in the previous offseason – there are rumors, but I’ve never specifically asked – to cause a rift.
But you might want to give both Russians credit for making up at the 2009 All-Star weekend in Montreal. They shook hands for cameras and, away from the spotlight, Alexei Kovalev and Ilya Kovalchuk staged a dinner/intervention where Malkin and Ovechkin buried the hatchet (and perhaps a bottle of vodka).
They did that for the sake of having to play together for Russia in international events, but both players showed some maturity in getting past the grudge.
Again, it’s understandable if Penguins fans just can’t stomach Ovechkin winning the Cup. Even Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang, asked by Pittsburgh Hockey Now going into the Penguins’ second-round matchup with Washington this spring about Ovechkin’s legacy being tied to whether he wins a Cup, weren’t exactly supportive of their rival.
And this is not about Ovechkin stealing the thunder of Marc-Andre Fleury and Vegas. That storyline just happens to intersect with the Capitals’ first trip to the final in the Ovechkin era.
But maybe this examination has helped a few Penguins fans to have a least a bit of appreciation for Ovechkin and his quest for the Cup.