Sunday, August 28, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Alex Ovechkin

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words while delivering a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, in April 1910, just over a year after he left office as the 26th President of the United States.  It is among the most widely quoted passages of anyone who ever served in the office.  One can draw a bright line from this speech, officially titled “Citizenship in a Republic,” but more commonly known as “The Man in the Arena,” to the life and hockey career of perhaps the most accomplished, if not yet complete, player in Washington Capitals history: Alex Ovechkin.

To say Theodore Roosevelt was a force of nature in his lifetime and as a figure in American history is beyond argument.  He was born in New York City in 1858, the second of four children.  He had the misfortune of suffering from asthma as a child, but during one attack he was sent away to recuperate.  On his way he met a couple of boys his age who were in good health, but had enough of a mischievous streak to make Roosevelt’s life miserable.  Roosevelt tried to defend himself, to no avail, but it was a hard lesson upon which he built.  It was in that instance that he took stock of himself and decided to try and physically train himself out of his deficiencies.  He learned to box, moved on to wrestling, began horse-riding, he weight-trained and took up rowing.  He took up what he would call “the strenuous life.”  Paired with a more natural intellectual curiosity (he studied German, natural history, zoology, forensics, and composition while at Harvard), and a father who had considerable influence over Roosevelt by the example of his own active life, it made for an impressive personality.

It served him well, even if he decided after only a year at Columbia Law School to abandon that pursuit and begin a career in politics (he still managed to do much of his work writing “The Naval War of 1812,” a book he completed at age 23 and that is still thought to be a classic in military history).  By the time he was 26 years old, he won a seat as a state assemblyman in New York, where began a career-long effort to confront corruption in politics.  That effort carried over to his activity in the election of 1884 where, at the Republican convention, he aligned with reformers (the “Mugwumps”) to try to influence the national ticket.  His efforts and those of the Mugwumps failed, and in a fit of pique, noted that he would give “hearty support” to any Democrat, not the Republican candidate James Blaine.  He recanted and learned another lesson, that if he was to play a larger role in the party, he had to avoid such displays.

After an unsuccessful run for Mayor of New York in 1886, he headed west, building a ranch in North Dakota and serving in law enforcement.  He immersed himself in the life of the west, taking up roping and hunting, and writing about the life on the frontier.  When his herd of cattle was wiped out in a severe winter, he returned east.

From the time he returned he was once more active in politics.  He was appointed to the United States Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison, where he served for six years, then became president of the board of the New York City police commissioners.  He continued his war on corruption as a police commissioner, often turning to walking officers’ beats late at night to experience first-hand what was happening on the street and to make sure officers were fulfilling their duties. 

Two years later, Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President William McKinley.  Despite his rank as an assistant secretary, he was influential in preparing the Navy for war with Spain.  When war broke out after the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor in early 1898, Roosevelt resigned his civilian office and formed a cavalry regiment, the First U.S. Volunteers, commonly known as the “Rough Riders.”  Roosevelt’s regiment participated in their most famous battle in July 1898, the “Battle of San Juan Hill.”

His war record was a prominent feature of his campaign for Governor of New York upon returning from the conflict.  It helped provide the margin of victory, fewer than 18,000 votes out of almost 1.4 million cast.  The narrow victory did nothing to slow the pace of his activity.  He promoted what he called a “square deal” that provided for "honesty in public affairs, an equitable sharing of privilege and responsibility, and subordination of party and local concerns to the interests of the state at large (G. Wallace Chessman, “Governor Theodore Roosevelt: The Albany Apprenticeship”)."  His attention to economic issues, especially with respect to large corporations, trusts, railroads, and protections for the poor, served as something of a warm-up for his turn on the national stage.

That came when President McKinley’s first-term Vice President Garret Hobart died in office of heart failure in November 1899.  Roosevelt was promoted for the position by a number of Republican leaders and accepted nomination, serving as something of the energetic “bad cop” in taking on the Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, enthusiastically.  The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket won election, and fate would elevate Roosevelt to the White House when McKinley was assassinated in September 1901.

Roosevelt served the remainder of McKinley’s term and a full term of his own.  In more than seven years in office as President, Roosevelt aggressively pursued an agenda that involved curbing the power of “trusts” and supporting organized labor.  He took on railroads and what he believed to be their corrupt business practices with respect to the shipment of coal and commercial goods.  Under his administration, the Meat Inspection Act was enacted (legislation that still serves as the basic authority for meat inspection programs), as was the Pure Food and Drug Act (legislation that led to creation of the Food and Drug Administration).  His was an aggressive administration in the use of executive orders, becoming the first President to issue more than 1,000 orders in his administration.  He was a champion of conservation issues, extending Federal protection of lands, seeing the creation of the United States Forest Service, and signing into law the establishment of several national parks and 18 new national monuments.

His administration was not without its difficulties, though.  Roosevelt’s relationship with the press was complicated, using them frequently, even daily, to convey his message, but coining the term “muckraker” to describe a dishonest journalist making false or unsubstantiated charges.  His second term was characterized by a move to the ideological left with promoting an income tax, limiting the role of courts in labor disputes, campaign reform, and national statutes governing corporations.  None of the reforms were enacted under his administration (although some were later), and the effort left him a somewhat diminished figure in his own party.

It did not prevent him from successfully advocating for William Howard Taft as his successor.  Taft won the party nomination and the general election of 1908 to succeed Roosevelt.  The trouble was that Roosevelt tried to exert his influence on Taft after leaving office in a persistent and obvious way.  It led to a split between Roosevelt, and Taft and the party.  By 1912, Roosevelt was receptive to running as a “progressive” and did so as the standard bearer for the new “Progressive Party,” more commonly referred to as the “Bull Moose” party.  His efforts were insufficient to move enough Republicans away from the GOP, but he did cut deeply into Taft’s vote totals, pushing Taft into third place in the Electoral College voting and providing Democrat Woodrow Wilson with the opening he needed to win election.

Roosevelt hardly missed a beat in his activity after the 1912 election.  He participated in a scientific expedition to South America in 1913 and was a strong opponent of the foreign policy of President Wilson upon his return to the United States.  He even was encouraged to seek the 1920 Republican nomination for President, but health (the after effects of malaria he contracted in South America) prevented him from mounting a serious challenge.  His health issues and the death of his son, Quentin, in World War I, left Roosevelt devastated.  In early January 1919 he passed in his sleep at Oyster Bay, Long Island, the victim of a  pulmonary embolism.

If there is a force of nature in the NHL, one that transcends the dimensions of the hockey rink to spill over into media and his private life, it is Alex Ovechkin.  No player of this era combines his size, speed, skill, and willingness to deploy a physical style of play in portions ladled out by Ovechkin on a night-to-night basis.  He is a player who inspires respect and who conjures up visions of the “dirty” hockey player.  He is praised for accomplishments unique to him in this era of depressed offense, yet derided for his inability to lead his team into the deeper rounds of the postseason.  And that doesn’t even address his international play, which features a resume of world championships and Olympic disappointment.  In an era of ubiquitous social media outlets, his private life is chronicled to an extent perhaps greater than any player in hockey.  He is a sports icon on two continents.

Born in Moscow to parents who themselves were athletes (his father was a professional soccer player, his mother a winner of two Olympic gold medals as a member of the Soviet Union women’s basketball team), Alex got an early start in sports, and in hockey in particular.    By the age of 16 he was playing for Dynamo Moscow and would soon be getting attention from the North American hockey community.  In 2002, the 17-year old Ovechkin was being described as “Hockey’s Next Big Thing,” a player with more of a “Canadian” approach to the game…
"Ovechkin has what hockey people refer to as Russian skills, which are distinct from Swedish or Czech skills.  Russians stickhandle a lot, handling the puck in traffic well.  And they're explosive. But he's not like [Boston Bruins left wing] Sergei Samsonov, who scores by stickhandling. And he won't be circling like [Pittsburgh Penguins right wing] Alexei Kovalev, looking like a ballerina, waiting for the perfect play.  There's more of a Canadian approach that Ovechkin combines with those Russian skills. He's not reluctant to shoot. He already has an NHL-caliber shot, and he uses it – wrister, slap shot, one-timer. He knows how to go high on a goalie."
He was even being compared to Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Penguin Mario Lemieux…in Pittsburgh.  It was said that but for his birthday, two days after the cut-off for eligibility for the 2003 draft, he might have been the first overall pick of that draft.  In fact, the Florida Panthers tried a novel approach to the matter of Ovechkin’s birthday.  Panther General Manager Rick Dudley argued that if leap-days were factored into the eligibility equation, Ovechkin would turn 18 four days earlier than his birthday of record and thus would have been eligible for the 2003 draft.  Dudley tried to draft Ovechkin in four separate rounds of the 2003 draft, but they were rebuffed by the league each time.

Ovechkin was eligible for the 2004 draft, but when the Caps finished with the third-worst overall record in the 2003-2004 season, their chances of leapfrogging the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins to win the 2004 draft lottery looked slim.  But win it they did, and when Washington General Manager George McPhee announced his name with the first overall pick in the 2004 Entry Draft, Ovechkin was a Capital, the cornerstone of the rebuild they began with their selloff of players in the 2003-2004 season to set the stage for his selection.

Since then, Ovechkin has not disappointed his fans, with one exception.  He has won 14 personal awards since coming into the NHL in 2005-2006:
  • Hart Trophy/Most Valuable Player (3 times)
  • Maurice Richard Trophy/Top Goal Scorer (6, most of any player since the award was established)
  • Ted Lindsay Award/Outstanding Player (3)
  • Art Ross Trophy (1)
  • Calder Trophy/Top Rookie (1)

He is a seven-time selection to the first NHL All-Star team (he won selection to the first All Star team as a right wing and to the second team as a left wing in 2012-2013), the only player in NHL history to have been selected to the first team in each of his first five seasons.  He has been selected NHL player of the year by various publications, including The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and The Hockey News.  He is a seven-time winner of the Kharlamov Trophy as the top Russian hockey player of the previous season (Pavel Datsyuk is the only other player to have won it more than once).  He has been an all-star in world championships (2005 as a junior, 2006, 2008) and in the Winter Olympics (2006).  He has three World Championship gold medals (2008, 2012, 2014).  He has seven 50-goal seasons on his resume; only Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky have more in NHL history (nine apiece)..

But with all the offense is a physical dimension almost unprecedented, particularly in the modern era of hockey.  For example, since he came into the league in 2005-2006, concurrently with the league beginning to record “hits” as a statistic, Ovechkin has recorded more hits (2,268) than all but four players (Dustin Brown, Chris Neil, Brooks Orpik, and Cal Clutterbuck).  The flip side of that is that Ovechkin has been suspended three times in his career for hits outside the rules, once in 2009 for a hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason (two games), once in 2010 for a hit on Chicago’s Brian Campbell (two games), and again in 2012 for a hit on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek (three games).

Ovechkin has been the rare athlete who has not been confined within the lines of his sport.  In addition to playing it, he has been a hard-working promoter of the sport…

He has become a fan favorite for what he does off the ice

He hasn’t been afraid of trying his hand at other sports…and doing in his first try what people who play it spend a lifetime hoping they can accomplish…

And he has managed to share moments of “adventure” with teammates…

And he has even shared the office Teddy Roosevelt once occupied…

The disappointment that stands as an exception to his record of accomplishments, of course, is Ovechkin’s lack of success on the biggest of stages – an Olympic gold medal or a Stanley Cup.  The best that can be said for that is he is still compiling his body of work, and it is too late to close the door on either of those accomplishments being added to his resume. 

Theodore Roosevelt and Alex Ovechkin are two of a kind, outsized personalities who are perhaps unsurpassed as examples of “The Man in the Arena.”  Roosevelt overcame illness in his youth and personal misfortune (his first wife, Alice, died two days after giving birth to their daughter, Alice Lee) to become one of the most impressive figures, not just in American politics, but in American history.  Alex Ovechkin overcame personal misfortune of his own (his older brother, Sergei, died in a car accident when Alex was ten years old), and the cultural and language barriers the came with entering the NHL to become not just one of the greatest players in NHL history, but an athletic icon with a fearless attitude to experiencing life outside of hockey.  In the nature of their accomplishments, their personal history, and their personalities, Theodore Roosevelt and Alex Ovechkin each occupy a place that “shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”