My Kingdom for a Knee Sprain

Cup'pa JoeAll of us watching last night, in those first two to three seconds that Alexander Ovechkin remained prone on the RBC Center ice, likely reacted in similar fashion: it’s the Russian Machine, it doesn’t break down like the bodies of other athletes. Of course he’s going to get right back up, shake off the cobwebs, and return to his predatory stride the very next shift.

But as the opening seconds of his immobility were joined by images of facial anguish, and his arms wrapped around his maimed knee and his body writhed on the ice in obvious distress, as those seconds of agony-in-us advanced, those of us who go back a few years with this team suddenly had thrust upon them a grave dread: My God, what if it’s Jeff Halpern bad?

Ten years ago Jeff Halpern was one of the best stories this region had seen in hockey, the Potomac, Maryland, native making the Caps as a free agent in 1999 with outrageous speed and a beautiful, balanced stride. He was every bit as good and strong a skater as a 30-year-old Peter Bondra as he burst onto the scene. He was one goal shy of scoring 40 through his first two NHL seasons, and then, on January 18, 2002, he landed awkwardly into the corner boards in Montreal and tore up his knee. Major surgery and rigorous rehab returned him to the ice the following season, but Jeff Halpern was never the same skater after that injury. He’s enjoyed a serviceable NHL career, and his knees have endured more agony, but that one bad landing in Montreal forever altered his trajectory.

We know that in his collision with Tim Gleason last night Ovi’s right skate wasn’t planted in the ice, fortunately, which could go a long way to eliminating a torn ACL as one diagnosis. However virtually all of his weight was leaning onto that right leg that seemed to make the most contact with the Hurricanes’ defender.

Later this morning we’ll learn the results of Dr. Benjamin Schaffer’s examination of our franchise player’s knee. It’ll be a morning of F5 dread the likes of which we haven’t known since Ovi arrived.

As terms and conditions of our sport we have to accept the bad injuries that result from skate blades getting caught in ruts in ice, of joints and bones brutalized from multi-player collisions, and certainly, unfortunately, of concussions. But injuries such as Ovechkin’s last night do not have to occur as currency in our game; his was very much a self-inflicted wound, and this morning we are right and fair to feel some anger at him for it.  This morning in our sickened suspense many of us likely feel, for the very first time, that our world’s best player, the accumulator of every significant individual award his sport has to offer before he turned 24, isn’t a fully matured, fully responsible hockey player.

There are three types of hits which in today’s game occur all too often and really can’t be tolerated:

  • The hit high to the head with a lead shoulder or forearm or stick;
  • The attack from behind upon an unsuspecting target along the boards;
  • And leading with a knee outstretched into a skater’s lane — what Ovi did to Sergei Gonchar in last spring’s playoffs and again last night on Tim Gleason. Both checks, I’d point out, occurring in nearly identical areas of the ice — about 180 feet from the Capitals’ cage.

His knee-on-knee hits aren’t perhaps habitual quite yet, but two of them have now taken place in a span of little more than six months’ time, and they’ve showcased a certain recklessness to his game that demonstrates faulty judgment. We understand and appropriately celebrate Ovi’s once-in-a-generation level of skill and bravado, and we don’t want him to reign in his fantastic ferocity. But we want and need him to channel his checking aggression into well-managed warfare.

In the postgame last night Ovi’s coach stood up for his stricken player, as he should have. He contended that from “about 20” video reviews of the hit he saw his player “lead with his shoulder” into Tim Gleason and that Ovi’s right leg simply “got caught up” in the collision. My hope is that the coach plans on having a more diagnostic discussion about such hits with his player in private.

No matter the medical verdict ahead Ovechkin has arrived at a crossroads in his NHL career. This Saturday night Don Cherry is going to have something to say all right about the action that precipitated Ovi’s injury Monday night (prediction: “He had it coming”), and he’s going to reinforce already existing perceptions as well as persuade some fence-sitters about the physical aspect of our star’s game. Craig Laughlin was right last night afterward — today’s NHL players must coalesce around a greater respect for one another on the ice. Ovi’s leg-leading of late may not be a clear case of disrespecting his opponents, but it’s certainly not a wise and career-protecting way to play the game.

Let this injury be modest, for the good of the Capitals and the good of hockey, but let it also be a wakeup call for our warrior, who going forward must better manage his frenzy and fury.

This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Carolina Hurricanes, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to My Kingdom for a Knee Sprain

  1. Penguin Pete says:

    pens fan here, but more importantly a hockey fan (and if you don’t enjoy ovi you don’t enjoy hockey).

    after reading the first 4-5 paragraphs of this post i was pretty upset that the check, or type of check and the blurry line upon which it rests had not been addressed. however, i should’ve known better, as the honesty and fairness in which you addressed the hit(s) in the second half of the post are (or should it be “is”?) why i keep coming back here.

    keep up the great work, and i’ll be damned if i’m not sick of seeing that “victory toast” picture!

  2. Jim says:

    I almost don’t want to follow the NHL anymore without Ovi in it. And I’m a lifelong fan of the game and have played for 20+ years. Watching him play is like watching shark week every night.

  3. Penguin Pete,

    I speak for the entire OFB team in identifying you as among our favorite of patrons. Beyond the substantive and respectful reflections you characteristcally share here you also represent what I personally regard as the most commendable aspect of our sport: even in our impassioned partisanship there are overarching aspects we follow and debate — for the good of the game moments, call them — around which we unite. A great hockey fan, be he in Pittsburgh or D.C., this morning is saddened at the prospect of perhaps not seeing Ovi and Sidney square off when next the teams meet.

    Anyway, thanks freshly for the kind words and especially your loyal support.

  4. “Like watching shark week every night” — I love it! So, so true!

  5. maruk says:

    Kudos to you, Jim. That is one the best and most accurate descriptions of Ovi I have read.

    And nice article, P&B. As much as I hate to say it, I almost hope there is a three game suspension in the works. Perhaps that will help the Gr8 learn to effectively channel his reckless energy.

  6. joyfulleigh18 says:

    Excellent analysis, P&B. I totally agree.

  7. j-man says:

    So is the title of this post saying that the author wishes injury upon Ovechkin? It’s a little misleading (and controversial for the sake of being controversial) when you put up that sort of headline and then don’t acknowledge it in any way in the content of the article.

  8. Jim says:

    As to the title of the post, it is backwards in terms of the Shakespearean context, but I think what he’s saying is he’ll give his kingdom for it to only be a knee sprain and not a tear or anything requiring surgery.

  9. shutdownstud says:

    Thanks for so artfully reflecting my own thoughts on the matter only so much more… um… thoughtfully.

    Just because the outcome of the check was unintentional doesn’t mean it was acceptable. I’m sure the word ‘reckless’ will come up when Alex has a sit-down with league management. He’s got to tone down his act if only for his own protection. Here’s hoping that any suspension discussion is not rendered moot by a trip to the injured reserve list.

  10. j-man says:

    Jim, I find it hard to infer that based on the fact that later in the post the author also expresses a desire to see the player in question suspended.

  11. DCPensFan says:

    I think what’s tough in cases like this is it gets reduced to a still photograph. Take Puck Daddy’s post — that still is pretty damning and can be used as “exhibit A” (or B if you want to add in the Gonchar hit) in making the the Ovi is dirty case. It doesn’t look the same at full speed. Reckless doesn’t mean dirty. But he’s got to learn that if the hit isn’t there, you try again next time. So punish him for being reckless — but don’t label him as dirty … yet.

    My guess — 2 games and fine.

  12. Patrick says:

    I agree, he should get a suspension. I love the guy to death but he needs to get a warning shot fired across the bow, to open his eyes, as well appease the masses. I don’t believe that he had any intent to injure Gleason for the long term, but Alex is a big, powerful young man. I believe that he wanted to leave a lasting impression on the Canes and maybe the rest of the league by throwing a thunderous bodycheck. His conscience will bother him for how close he came to seriously injuring Gleason. More importantly, I hope he realizes how close he came to putting an end to Gleason, AND his own career. Alex needs to focus on filling the nets not obliterating the opposition. I love a physical game, but not at the risk of a debilitating injury. I appreciate his strategy of hitting his checker to give himself some space, but these types of hits smell too much like TOOTOO’s unnecessarily malicious trainwrecks.

  13. @ DCPensFan, you’re exactly right: reckless, not dirty.

    @ Jim, you too are exactly right: the headline clearly hopes that it’s “only” a knee sprain instead of something worse. Why would a Capitals-focused Web site wish injury upon the team’s star… the team’s *future*? A ludicrous thought.

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