Tuesday, January 04, 2011

One Rivalry or Another

Ever since the two came into the league – Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby – the comparison of comparisons has been, “are these two the next generation ‘Magic versus Bird’ rivalry?” It certainly was an easy leap to think of their emerging rivalry in those terms.

Alex Ovechkin might have been the “Magic” in this tale. Like Johnson, he came to his professional league at the age of 20, a rambunctious, irrepressible, effervescent soul with an outsized talent and flair for the dramatic. He would put up numbers in such a prolific fashion as to almost redefine the importance and impact of a left wing in a manner similar to that which Johnson redefined the position of “point guard” in the NBA.

Sidney Crosby would be the “Bird” in this rivalry, a prodigy from a small town who had been noticed as a generational talent from the time he was a youngster. Giving the appearance of being wary of the spotlight that was constantly trained on him, Crosby would be as uncontroversial in his public persona as Bird was in his. Despite his considerable talents he, like Bird, might have seemed dull in comparison to Ovechkin, as Bird might have been when compared to Johnson.

But with Ovechkin and Crosby, there was no denying their talents any more than there was when Bird and Johnson entered the NBA. It would make their meetings “events” to be chronicled in never-ending lists of who scored how much against the other, and who won more games, more playoff series, or more titles than the other.

But as time goes by, and we get a fuller appreciation of the respective talents and public personalities of the players, there is another “rivalry” that might be more appropriate to use as a comparison to that between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. After five-plus seasons in the NHL, both have been successful. It is nothing short of amazing that this deep into their respective careers (both having played more than 400 regular season games) that they have precisely the same number of points – 571. They arrived at that mark in very different ways, Ovechkin doing it primarily with goals scored from every conceivable point on the ice and even one on his back. Crosby has done it with the technical precision of a surgeon, relying early on in his career on a host of tricks to thread passes to waiting teammates for a score. More recently – part of his relentless pursuit of fixing technical weaknesses in his game – he has improved his shot selection and shot making, mixed in with a willingness to wade through traffic, to score more on his own.

But the alternative comparison emerges when one looks at their performance in the context of their teams. Ovechkin has been prolific in the extreme in terms of his own numbers – a four-time 50-goal scorer, four times over 100 points, a plus-74 for his career (in only 436 games), a Calder Trophy, First Team All-Rookie Team, five-time First Team NHL All Star, a Ross Trophy, two Richard Trophies, two Hart Trophies, and three Lindsay Awards. What he doesn’t have are “wins” – wins that matter. He has one playoff series win in four tries and was the face of a Russian team that was bounced early and emphatically from the 2010 Winter Olympic Games – by Sidney Crosby’s Canadian team. His lone “win” was a 2008 World Championship gold medal, a year in which Sidney Crosby went to his first Stanley Cup final.

Crosby does not have quite Ovechkin’s personal resume, but his trophy case is still well stocked – a First Team All-Rookie Team, a First Team NHL All Star, a Ross Trophy, a Hart Trophy, a Lindsay Award, and a Richard Trophy. But what he has more of is wins. Crosby has participated in more Penguin playoff wins (38) than Ovechkin has in Washington playoff games (28). He has been to the Stanley Cup finals twice, winning once. He has an Olympic gold medal. You could argue (and in fact, I would) that Crosby has accomplished this with teams that were more talented than Ovechkin’s, but wins matter in the evaluation of developing legends, and Crosby has them.

As the NHL’s 2010-2011 season enters its second half, we seem to be approaching a crossroads in the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry. Over the first five years Crosby has had the better of it, even with the Caps going 8-0-2 in the last ten regular season meetings with the Penguins. Ovechkin’s teams have won a lot of games that ultimately didn’t mean much, while Crosby’s teams won as much and won when it mattered. As public figures, Ovechkin came into the league as a devil-may-care sort to dove into his new English-speaking culture with enthusiasm. From making commercials to giving interviews in halting (but improving) English to the chronicles of his “rock star” sort of life style (certainly by the more buttoned-down standards of hockey), he was the fresh face, a personality with personality. Even as he seems to have withdrawn some, especially after last year’s Olympic misfortune, he still remains perhaps the most electric personality in the league. Crosby, on the other hand, is the opposite in public temperament. At least for public consumption, his life is hockey, and he has an almost monomaniacal focus on it and improving his performance in it. No one is getting a free peek at the “inner Crosby.” Ovechkin’s is a free-lanced life; Crosby’s scripted to the finest detail.

The differences between the two came into clearer relief in the HBO series, although there were introspective moments from Ovechkin and spontaneous expressions of emotion from Crosby (only on the ice, though). It would be unfair to Crosby to say that Ovechkin seems to enjoy his life more than does Crosby, but we suspect that if folks were asked to choose which one they would rather have, if only for a time, that Ovechkin’s seems the more fun one to experience.

In that respect, we wonder if the apt comparison for these two players is the “Magic/Bird” rivalry. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were very different personalities that made for great drama on the court. But both won, often and often at the other’s expense. Johnson won an NCAA championship against Bird and won five NBA titles. Bird won three NBA titles. That kind of close competition in terms of championships has not yet been a hallmark of the Ovechkin/Crosby rivalry.

If Ovechkin’s Capitals come up short this season, especially if Crosby’s Penguins go deep into the post season or win another Stanley Cup, the closer comparison might then become one between two professionals in another sport. On the one hand, an immensely talented individual who won a lot of titles that didn’t matter much, but came up short too often in important events early in his career; yet an athlete who seemed to lead a rich and varied life away from his place of work. On the other hand, a prodigy, a player whose gifts were evident before his first day of school, a player with an uncommon ability to focus on his craft, seemingly to the exclusion of all else, at least for public consumption. One athlete a great interview, personable, the sort you might like to hang around with. The other given to almost cliché-like answers to interview questions, practiced, scripted, distant.

By the time this season is over, the sixth for both Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the picture might come into clearer focus whether the Ovechkin/Crosby rivalry really is the next coming of the Magic/Bird rivalry, one that had enough success to go around; or merely that of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, one dominated by one rival over the other on the biggest stages.

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