All 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.