Today Alenander Ovechkin, 14th Captain of the Washington Capitals hockey franchise, reached the 500 regular season NHL goal mark in his career. It is a very exclusive club. Of the tens of thousands of players who have laced up in the National Hockey League over the years only 42 others have ever reached the mark. Of those 42 only four achieved it in fewer games than Ovechkin. Only two of Ovechkin’s contemporaries who played at least part of their career during the lock-out and dead puck era of hockey have reached it so far.
There are a great many things that are impressive about Ovi’s accomplishment and pages of pixelated ink have been spilled across the internet concerning it. To me though, what’s most impressive, is how Ovi did it.
He did it because of his love for the game.
And that love of the game has not subsided no matter how he’s been criticized for it. He truly loves playing hockey first and foremost.
Despite my love of Ovi and the Caps I’m not terribly well versed in his teenage years in Russia. I know he achieved a high level of success and was a legend in his own right coming into the draft with exceptionally high expectations being placed upon him. Like everything else though, it was less about what he could do on the ice and more about how he carried himself even in is youth. It was such a wide eyed optimism.
When he was drafted by the Caps the first thing I remember was that smile. He looked like a child on Christmas, complete with those missing front teeth. It was as if coming to the league was finding the one gift they’d always wanted under the tree. He was glowing. This despite coming to a team in the NHL cellar. A team without much of a historical legacy. A team that lacked the depth and breath for immediate success. He was just so happy to play hockey in North America it didn’t matter.
That excitable expression he had after his game tying first goal October 5, 2005 at home against Columbus was awesome. He had arrived. And yet, that was just the beginning. Over the next few years he became a human highlight reel. Not only was he scoring goals at a pace his peers were not, he was doing it with a finesse and style that hockey in general really had not ever seen. He was dynamic and exciting and creating opportunities where few others could have even considered them coming from.
In 81 games that season the Russian youth potted 52 goals, created 54 assists and posted a 106 point season. He won the Calder that year. NHL First All-Star Team as well as the leading candidate on the All-Rookie team. It was the first of six season over 50 goals, which as a rookie was a rare feat to begin with and he’s the only one in the modern era to achieve it. The 54 assists and 100 point season although less rare were still notable.
This created tension. He was Russian after all. For decades those damned Red Army Ruskies were the enemy.
He was also, more importantly, individually exuberant. For decades team sports were supposedly about fostering the team image. This despite the obvious grandstanding that occurred by generational players in the decades since New York Yankee Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man on the Face of Earth” speech. Ironically enough the Russian Red Army and all the initial defectors to the NHL’s deflection of stardom was exactly what North American sports aspired to and failed and yet somehow that was lost on Ovi’s arrival.
He would quickly go on to score what is affectionally know as “the goal.” But, despite it being on his back, at an awkward angle and against a good goalie he is as much known for his “hot stick” celebration for his 50th goal or the running man at his 100th as he is for any of the seemingly impossible ways he’s managed to score being taken down by defensivemen or at bad angles or with slappers that otherwise should never have found daylight against the net as well as all those Ovi-spot one timers on the powerplay everyone knows are coming and yet no one seems to be able to stop.
So, no matter what Ovi did – celebrate or not – he was judged. And judged harshly one might say. After all, the number of players who could draw up this list of accomplishments is pretty small: NHL First-All Star Team 7 selections (first player ever to have a selection at two positions in the same year (Second All Star Team (first player ever to produce multiple selections resulting at first and second) 3 selections; NHL All-Star game selection 7 times (multiple captaincy); 7 time Kharlamov Trophy (most ever); 5 time Richard Rocket Trophy (one of six ever to lead the league five times or more in their career); 3 time Hart Memorial (one of only a few all time to have multipe); 3 time Lester B. Pearson Award/ Ted Lindsay Award (again, one of a select few with multiple); Art Ross Trophy winner, etc. He was the first and only player to win the Art Ross Trophy, Maurice Richard Trophy, Lester B. Pearson Award and Hart Memorial Trophy and he did it all in a single season to boot.
Call it jealously. Call it Pro-Canadian bias, or East Coast bias, or North American bias or whatever, but that wasn’t good enough. The under staffed Washington Capitals franchise “refused” to win with Ovi at the helm. And, it didn’t matter what he did. Despite being at the top of the league for individual Corsi, Fenwick, SOG and Goals scored, and being able to produce iCA, iFA, iSOGA, and iGA numbers that represented his power-on-power deployments the press criticized him. It didn’t matter how much his style and skill was feared by other teams or defaulted to by his teammates somehow Ovi was broken.
And yet, he still managed to not only keep scoring in the face of system changes designed to reduce high event hockey, and coaches who believed in different styles, and even general managers who thought about developing a franchices. He went from a first year well rounded player to a freewheeling sniper that floated at the circles because of his coaching. From there he tried on being a power forward, then a neutral ice trapper, then to a shot blocker, then to an opposite winger, to a power play specialist, to a natural wing attacker yet again. And, amazingly through it all, he did it with a smile. Not only a smile for himself, but for that of every single teammate he’s skated with.
Think about it. He’s had more than 30 wingers in over a decade of NHL games who skated more than 10 games with him. For a third or forth liner that’s probably normal but for a first liner that’s rare, especially for his talent level. While Nick Backstrom has been a stabilizing force for him, he’s also skated with 8 other centers for more than 10 games a piece through his career as well.