It’s seared in my memory in a way virtually no other hockey moment, save the Miracle on Ice, is: the October 5, 2005, debut of Alexander Ovechkin in the NHL. Forty seconds into the new season’s opening game, on his very first NHL shift, Ovechkin slammed Columbus’ Radoslav Suchy so violently into the end boards that he dislodged the plexiglass support beam in the process, delaying the game some minutes. A few thousand Washingtonians in Verizon Center were witnessing hockey for the first time that night, principally because of Ovechkin’s arrival. What they must have imagined at that moment.
Up to that moment of impact, I’d known quite well that AO was going to be a hockey player unlike any other we’d ever seen in D.C. But as opening acts go, Ovi’s was conspicuous in skill and ferocity. For the remainder of that Calder-winning rookie season the Gr8, as he almost instantly became known, carried forward both dynamic skill and an All-Pro linebacker’s mentality: he scored 50 goals and he crushed people, often dramatically, always cleanly.
By the completion of Ovechkin’s third season, in 2007-08, when he scored 65 goals and swept up virtually all available individual hardware (to recap: the Hart; the Richard, the Pearson, and the Art Ross trophies), savvy, knowledgeable folks in hockey were discussing Ovi in historic terms. He really did appear to be, in unrivaled fashion, a compelling hybrid hockey player: the type of performer who could beat you with his wrists on one shift and lay our your biggest blueliner the next.
The best part of his physicality was its brutality well within the confines of the league’s lawfulness. Even fans of the Capitals’ biggest rivals had to give Ovi his due, if they were serious hockey fans.
But from where I sit this morning, there appears to be something akin to a menacing spirit that’s infiltrated Ovechkin’s game, more a cavalier disregard for the welfare of his opponent than anything characteristically filthy, and it seems to me to have germinated in last spring’s playoffs, with Ovi’s knee-on-knee misfortune with Sergei Gonchar. Were that hit to have occurred in the regular season as opposed to the playoffs, Ovi may well have been suspended. Were it to have happened this week, in light of what’s transpired with him since, it surely would have been. But it was really with that hit, with so many people watching, that Ovechkin gave us hard evidence that something new, something unprecedented, and something potentially sinister was stirring within.
In relatively short order, the litany of Ovechkin’s misdeeds has piled up:
- A corner ploughing into of Jamie Heward that resulted in the Lightning rearguard departing the ice on a stretcher.
- A moderately questionable knee-on-knee collision with Sergei Gonchar. It looks worse in slow motion; in real time, the hit, while meriting a penalty, appears instinctive and reactive in its immediacy, rather than malevolent.
- A brutal boarding of Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta that earned Ovi an ejection.
- Another knee-on-knee hit, far less questionable, on Carolina’s Tim Gleason, one that injured Ovi. When you watch the clip of it, notice how immediately the Hurricanes’ television announcer forecasts a penalty for the hit. The Kaleta and Gleason hits occurred within a week of one another.
- And this past Sunday’s collarbone-and ribs-cracking act of aggression against Chicago’s Brian Campbell, which may just end Campbell’s season. And Chicago’s hopes.
A few observations related to the totality of this litany. First, there can be no denying that Alexander Ovechkin plays with an edge that, when combined with his extraordinary — and extraordinarily strong — physique, renders him a unique, frankly unrivaled physical threat in the NHL. Anywhere in hockey, for that matter. And that’s part of his appeal.
It also seems fair and accurate to suggest that even in the totality of Ovechkin’s sanctionable hits there’s never been an instance when an observer could attribute, with any sense of reasonableness, any level of malice in Ovi’s play. But that doesn’t mean that what he’s been too commonly engaged in of late is right. Moreover, to state the obvious, to the extent that his style of play ushers in suspensions, he’s hurting his hockey team — the one he now captains.
What seems to have emerged in the last 12-15 months with his game is a peculiar and at least troubling lack of respect for his opponents. It’s a remorselessness. It was abundantly on display in video interviews of him in Sunday’s aftermath. At the very least, Ovi seems blissfully unaware of the novel physical advantage he enjoys in every matchup he’s engaged in. And he exploits it. There are other players in the league weighing 230 pounds; but there are none who skate like he does, nor possess the seeming genetic makeup to be a fast-moving armored tank on skates. He really is a physical freak. And that advantage has at times dire consequences.
I struggle with this basic question: why so much trouble for him of late, and why the comparatively placid power game of his first three seasons?
“He plays a reckless style,” Montreal’s Josh Gorges told TSN this week. “He’s going a hundred miles an hour, he’s hitting everything that moves, he’s going to the net, he’s burying guys . . . He plays that way, he plays with that reckless abandonment, and sometimes it’s right on the line.”
By 8:00 last night not only was the latest Ovechkin suspension the lead story on TSN’s home page but it was accompanied by damning video clips from the past and opinion pieces themed on whether or not Ovi was a dirty player.
“I want accountability for thoughtlessness,” Ray Ferraro wrote on TSN last night.
I do too. Sunday’s transgression was Ovechkin’s worst to date when measured by the barometer of thoughtlessness. It was simply a play that didn’t have to happen. Brian Campbell was without the puck, 195 feet from the Capitals’ cage. Ovechkin, his general manager claimed last night, was trying “to finish his check.” Notice that George McPhee didn’t claim that he was actually finishing his check — and we all know what that looks like — but rather trying to. Ovechkin in that moment had a judgment to make, and time to do it. He made a grievously, injuriously wrong one.
Josh Gorges aside, no one’s seriously claiming that Ovechkin is a reckless head-hunter. Not yet. But there’s an urgency to bringing Ovi back into the fold — back where he was with this organization during his first three seasons — on a night-in, night-out basis. Today Alexander Ovechkin is captain of his hockey team, and at the most crucial time perhaps in franchise history. There’s no guarantee of the Caps’ again being well distanced from the rest of their conference with the playoffs near, the team’s health outstanding, their Cup candidacy so vibrant and viable. Ovechkin’s franchise and its fans are tired of losing perennially in the postseason. He needs to be on the ice being his naturally brilliant and lawfully brutal self. Brilliant and brutal but fair. And respectful. We’ve seen that Ovechkin before, years’ worth. Hockey and the Caps are best served with his return to that form.