Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top Ten Stories of 2010 -- Number 5: The Dark Side

It was hard what to make of Alex Ovechkin when he entered the National Hockey League in 2005. His being the top prospect in the 2004 amateur draft provided more or less a name only to attach to him. Unless you spent a lot of time following hockey in Europe, and in Russia particularly, you probably did not know a lot about him other than some vague commentary that he was one of those once-in-a-generation kinds of talent that could lift a struggling franchise out of the muck of losing.

The biggest clue as to his talent – and his value to a franchise – actually came in the year before his draft by the Capitals, when the Florida Panthers tried an interesting argument in order to draft him. General Manager Rick Dudley argued that even though Ovechkin’s birthday was September 17, 1985; and thus two days after the cutoff date for eligibility in the 2003 NHL entry draft, the fact that leap yeas intervened (adding days to the calendar) should make Ovechkin eligible for purposes of the draft.

Dudley’s argument did not carry the day, and the Panthers (who held the first overall pick of the 2003 draft) went on to trade their first round selection to the Pittsburgh Penguins (which became Marc-Andre Fleury) along with a third round pick (which became Daniel Carcillo). The Panthers received the Penguins’ first round pick (third overall, with which they took Nathan Horton), a second round pick (Stefan Meyer) and Mikael Samuelsson.

The Panthers have never recovered.

But that is another story (as is the Penguins perhaps thanking their lucky stars that Florida didn’t win the argument). We tell it only to make the point that Ovechkin was so highly thought of that a team would concoct a long-shot argument just for the opportunity to draft him what amounted to be a year early.

Upon his arrival, Ovechkin evoked comparisons to Mark Messier, to Gordie Howe, and in some respects to the player Ovechkin proclaimed to be his favorite – Mario Lemieux. What he was, in fact, was an entirely different breed of player from that usually associated with European players. He was not a player who would play on the edges, eschewing contact, and preferring to set up teammates – the caricature of the European player to date. Rather, he was a force on skates who put a player through the glass with a check on his first NHL shift before scoring two goals later in the game. It was a rare combination of speed, power, and a knack for the dramatic that he brought to Washington, a city that never had such a player, the Capitals being a team more commonly thought of as having a lunch-pail, hard-working, rather drab personality.

Ovechkin’s exuberance extended beyond the confines of the rink, where he dove into learning his new language (taking on a North American teammate rather than one who spoke Russian) and made himself as available to the media as his halting (but improving) English would allow. It seemed there was nothing he would not do to promote the game (filming a commercial ordering up a suite full of room service for Sidney Crosby and a turn at giving his boss instructions on how to free a bag of potato chips from a stubborn vending machine being two of the more famous examples) as he piled up goals and points.

Ovechkin’s combination of production on the ice that earned him a trophy case full of individual awards and enthusiasm off it made him the NHL’s closest parallel to a rock star, unusual in a sport that was more “old school” and buttoned down than its major sport counterparts. Perhaps except for Penguin fans and fans of players he left littered on the ice or from goals scored at odd angles, he was loved by fans and media.

That was then. The year 2010 was less kind to Ovechkin, on and off the ice, to the point that he was being seen in some quarters as a darker, moodier personality off the ice and a more brutal, even “dirty” player on it. What the media build up, they tear down, eventually, but Ovechkin wasn’t an innocent bystander in the unmaking of his image.

The seeds of 2010 might have been sown late in 2009 when Ovechkin was suspended for two games following a knee-on-knee hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason. It was not his first questionable hit (as if any player who incorporates hits as a featured element in his game could avoid entirely the odd questionable hit), but it was his first suspension. It would not be his last.

2010 actually started well. Ovechkin was named team captain for the Capitals when Chris Clark was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Caps promptly ran off and hid from the rest of the league at the top of the standings, going 17-1-0 in their next 18 games. But after that, the season frayed badly for Ovechkin. The team lost three in a row heading into the Olympic break, which was prelude to a professional disaster for Ovechkin. In Vancouver, Ovechkin’s Team Russia – a pre-Olympic favorite to medal, if not win the tournament outright – was bounced by Team Canada in embarrassing fashion, a 7-3 loss. Never mind that in that game Ovechkin’s nemesis Sidney Crosby failed to record a point. It was Ovechkin failing one more time to win when it mattered, failing one more time to best Crosby in a game that mattered. That it came in a quarterfinal game – not even a medal round game – might have made the result even worse.

It got worse still. Already having been criticized for being inaccessible to media in Vancouver, he had the boom lowered upon himself after taking out his frustrations on an individual filming him outside of Russia House in Vancouver, an episode caught on video.

Returning to the NHL schedule did not provide a respite. Two weeks after the Vancouver Games, the Capitals visited the Chicago Blackhawks in a nationally televised game. In the first period Ovechkin was chasing Blackhawk defenseman Brian Campbell after the puck and pushed Campbell into the end boards. Campbell broke his collarbone, Ovechkin received a major penalty and a game misconduct. Then he was suspended again, this time for another two games.

Upon his return from suspension Ovechkin would finish the regular season 6-7-13 in 11 games, a scoring pace somewhat off of that which he posted before the Vancouver Games and suspension for the Campbell hit. And while he performed well in the first four games of the first round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens (4-4-8, plus-7), over which the Caps went out to a 3-2 lead in games, Ovechkin had a poor Game 5 (although he did score another goal) and went without a goal despite taking 18 shots on goal in Games 6 and 7, both of which the Caps lost to lose the series in one of the biggest Stanley Cup playoff upsets in recent memory.

The new season started with Ovechkin fast out of the gate – four goals and four assists in his first five games, over which the Caps went 4-1-0. But since then goals – his unparalled signature since he came into the league – became harder to come by. In the next 34 games that would close the calendar year Ovechkin went 10-26-36, a 24-63-85 pace for an 82-game season that would be far below a season’s worth of goals and points recorded by Ovechkin to date. By no means a bad season, but given the standard he set for his production, certainly out of the ordinary.

Taken as a body of work, Ovechkin’s production and performance in 2010 were not as good as the 17-1-0 start to his captaincy suggested, nor was it as bad as the Olympics or Stanley Cup tournaments might have suggested. It wasn’t even as bad as the finish to the calendar year. If anything, it was uneven – spectacular in spots, almost invisible in others. And invisible is one adjective that could not be applied to Alex Ovechkin before 2010.

More ominously, his brand seemed to take a hit. He was not the best player on the planet at year’s end (at least for the moment); Sidney Crosby having rocketed by him in that race with the big start he had to the 2010-2011 season. He was not as much the devil-may-care, all-toothless smiles character off the ice, either. He gave the appearance of being a more surly character, increasingly wary of the media (or at least that how it appeared from our chair). His suspensions only added to the diminished view of him.

Fair? Not really a relevant question. It is the price one pays for living in the spotlight, even for one with the outsized “rock star” personality of Alex Ovechkin. And if he had four seasons in which he could do little wrong, then it might have been inevitable that there would be a fall to earth moment. Like any 25 year old, Ovechkin impresses us from afar as a work in progress. He is one of the faces of the league, a certain draw in other cities on the road, the face of the Capitals’ franchise, and still one of the most dynamic personalities in the league, on or off the ice. Perhaps 2010 was just a “bad year,” or as bad as it gets for a 25-year old who has a $120 million-plus contract, a fist-full of commercial deals, and is in the conversation as to who is the best player of his generation.

Still, 2010 was a year in which Ovechkin took a stroll on (or was portrayed as being on) the dark side, and it merits attention as a top story in 2010.

1 comment:

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