Friday, January 15, 2010

He's not paid $124 million to use his knuckles

In the midst of all this Kovalchuk contract talk and the amazing, unprecedented, awe-inducing spectacle of Sidney Crosby hitting the 30-goal plateau, there is a lingering story gliding beneath the radar.

That story would be the saga of "Alex and the Bodyguard." The issue would be whether, during a 7-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Alex Ovechkin should have manned-up and dropped gloves with Lightning forward Steve Downie, with whom Ovechkin had a collision earlier in the contest, when the two exited the penalty box after serving their coincidental penalties stemming from the hit. Even though Ovechkin dropped his gloves and removed his helmet to answer the bell, teammate Matt Bradley inserted himself -- loudly and rapidly -- between Ovechkin and Downie, assuming the position as Downie's dance partner. Bradley ended up with four penalties for 27 minutes and an early exit from the contest, Downie got 17 minutes, and Ovechkin got only a single minor for unsportsmanlike conduct.

In the wake of the episode, many seem to have an opinion about Ovechkin's conduct -- unsportmanlike or not. Today, Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated weighs in on the matter of Bradley coming to Ovechkin's defense...

"It was yet another hit on a resume that could be interpreted as crossing the line between cheap and dirty. A minor confrontation followed and both players were penalized. When they exited the box, hostilities resumed. It was at that point that Bradley decided Ovechkin couldn't, or shouldn't, defend himself and took it upon himself to attack the player who'd originally been wronged.

Yeah, that makes sense.

We all know why Bradley felt the need to take action. Do the Caps want to see their franchise sidelined by a broken hand, separated shoulder or any other injury that has a remote chance of occurring any time two players square off?

Of course not. But that's hardly the point, is it?"

Well, it's precisely the point. The predicate for the argument is that the original hit was dirty. This is, itself, in no small amount of dispute in that the most-often quoted assessment to that end comes not from the wronged party -- Steve Downie -- but teammate Jeff Halpern, who said:

"I thought it was a dirty hit. He's a (heck) of a player, and he plays hard, but it's still a dirty hit. He's charging from his bench, Downs makes a move and he sticks his knee out there. It's not the cheapest hit in the world, but it's still a dirty hit."
Having watched the clip of it several times, Ovechkin enters the zone lining up Downie to be sure, but he is coming at him in a manner where his legs are at least shoulder width apart, and as he makes contact with Downie appears not to make any particular movement with either leg to impede Downie's movement (i.e., throw a knee out at him). As a Caps fan, I'll acknowledge that your interpretation of the events may differ, but what seems not to be debatable is that you have to assume the hit was dirty (an extension of the narrative that seems to have gained momentum that Ovechkin is a "dirty" player) and, therefore, something to be answered for.

And Ovechkin seemed willing to answer his call to The Code and do battle with Downie. Bradley intervened, and Muir seems to think this violates a code of accountability, the real point of the matter in his view.

Well, no. If Matt Bradley had been the perpetrator of the hit, Downie and Bradley almost certainly would have had their dance without intervention from a third party. But the point is precisely that "the Caps [don't] want to see their franchise sidelined by a broken hand, separated shoulder or any other injury."

Ovechkin represents a $124 million investment by the club in recognition that he is the most important piece in any run the Caps might make toward a Stanley Cup, and the risk of his being sidelined by an experienced pugilist of no other particular consequence from a hockey standpoint such as Downie is a no-brainer sort of decision. Matt Bradley -- to his everlasting credit -- recognized this instinctively, asking Coach Bruce Boudreau to put him on the ice, because Bradley knew that Downie would go looking for Ovechkin.

There is even a bit of recent history in this with respect to Ovechkin to drive home the point. On November 1st in a game against Columbus, Ovechkin was involved in a scrum at the Blue Jackets' bench, getting tangled up with Jason Chimera (now, perhaps ironically, a teammate) and Jared Boll. Ovechkin injured his shoulder and missed six games.

This isn't the black-and-white era of hockey. Elite players are very expensive investments. And while hockey is and should remain a high-contact sport where players should expect to be hit when they themselves engage in the practice, the sheer economics of the current game argue against players such as Ovechkin (or Crosby, or Kane...) expanding the potential for risk by engaging in score-settling fights with journeyman players at the end of games long-decided.

Muir missed "the point" entirely in his article, and there are $124 million reasons why.

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