By Kelly J. Stoner
On Jan. 5, Alex Ovechkin was named the 14th captain of the Washington Capitals. There was very little hoopla from the team about it, simply the "C" added to Ovechkin’s red jersey for the Caps’ home game against the Montreal Canadiens. When he was introduced by the in-game announcer, the crowd roared and cheered its new captain; it seemed the Caps fanatics approved. But in speaking with other fans, I’ve heard many expressions of doubt over the move. Some feel that Ovechkin isn’t ready to be captain, that his gregarious, carefree nature doesn’t dispose him to a position of such responsibility. Some feel Ovechkin isn’t enough of a teammate – that he’s in it for himself and that he doesn’t show nearly enough concern about the other members of the team. Some are worried that the team will be more lackadaisical without a straight-laced man at the helm; they feel the team needs someone with a more workman-like mien, akin to the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews. Guest Post by
I completely 100% totally in every way disagree with those beliefs.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Ovechkin. He is the reason I started watching hockey, a sport I never had any interest in before moving to D.C. in Feb. of last year. And I know he’s not perfect; after all, even the best athletes in the world are only human (see: Woods, Tiger). And there is a danger inherent in believing that Alex Ovechkin is more than human. But I think Ovechkin is the perfect captain for these Washington Capitals.
I could simply say that Ovechkin is the right captain because he is who the team wanted. His teammates, coaches, and management believe in him, and unequivocally gave their support for his captaincy following the trade of Chris Clark to the Columbus Blue Jackets. That trumps all arguments against Ovechkin as captain. However, I am not one of Ovechkin’s teammates, nor am I his coach; I am an outsider. But even from my perch in the nosebleed section of Verizon Center on Tues. evening, I felt that Ovechkin was the right choice. In particular, I’d like to address some of the concerns I’ve heard voiced by other Washington hockey fans, such as the ones described in the opening paragraph. Don’t worry, I’m not going to wax poetical about Ovi’s abilities on the ice, or pile superlatives on him like "fast," "strong," "bold," "aggressive," or "passionate," although he is all those things.
It’s no secret that over the past four years, Washington D.C. has fallen in love with Ovi’s gap-toothed grin. His fast and furious lifestyle, complete with flashy cars, designer clothes and supermodel girlfriends, is the epitome of the American dream. And Ovechkin shows no sign of stopping. His propensity to speak his mind has endeared him to the Caps’ fan base, and I think that openness contributes greatly to his role on the team. He needs that goofy persona to reach the other players – without it, and with his trophies and accolades piling up, he might very well be too intimidating to young players called up from the minors, or those participating in their first professional training camp.
In an article from Mar. 2009 profiling the Capitals’ five Russian players, former Washington Times beat writer Corey Masisak pointed out that Ovechkin is the glue for many players on the Caps’ squad: "Ovechkin isn’t a rah-rah leader – the guy who delivers the fire-and-brimstone speech. What he does is connect people from different backgrounds and different countries." Ovi’s bonds with the enigmatic Russians, the shy Swede, and the conservative Canadians put him at the heart of this team in a way that speeches can’t. You can hear it in the other players’ interviews; just last week Mike Green mentioned a "sick" play, and brushed off a reporter’s comments with "it is what it is," Ovechkin’s verbal equivalent of a shrug. Is there any doubt that Ovechkin is a leader, when he is so obviously ingrained in the psyches of his teammates?
In regards to his ability to lead this team to the Stanley Cup, I ask: are Caps fans living too much in the past, relying too heavily on youtube replays of Ovi’s greatest moments and goofiest outbursts from his previous four seasons in North America? At times, Ovechkin has seemed reluctant to be an official leader of the team, preferring to focus more on playing his game and engaging in off-ice antics that leave even his closest friends shaking their heads. But gone is the starry-eyed 19-year-old kid from Russia whose sparkling talent amazed a small, dedicated crowd at the intersection of 7th and F Streets, a kid who performed wild emotional displays as often as he performed one-timers. In his place is a man whose confidence on the ice was born of experience, of surety of self, and of a deep understanding of his own capabilities. In tough games battling with rival teams like the one north of the border where Gretzky lead a dynasty, I know who I want to be leading the Capitals, setting an example with his on-ice play.
Personally, I think the timing of this new appointment is perfect: having achieved his personal goal to be named MVP, and emphatically reinforcing his reputation by securing a second consecutive MVP trophy, Ovechkin can now leave behind the distraction of chasing these titles and focus solely on winning the Cup – which we all know, and Ovechkin admits, is a team endeavor. Ken Campbell from The Hockey News recently interviewed Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis about Ovechkin and his role on the team. Leonsis described some of his discussions with Ovi where they both agreed that in order for Ovechkin to go down in history as one of the best hockey players of all time the Capitals will need to win a Stanley Cup, and soon. Even if Ovechkin is only concerned with his own reputation, you can bet that he wants the Cup more than anything to secure his place among hockey’s greatest stars.
But I don’t believe Ovechkin is only preoccupied with his personal stats – how could a man whose greatest concern is himself rouse a team of nearly 25 players to a standing ovation upon the announcement of his captaincy?
The Capitals are no stranger to the label "one man team;" in the past, it seemed that the Caps couldn’t escape this designation. And some Caps fans now worry that the fame afforded to Ovechkin by his skill has been too heady a brew, that he eschews team success for personal glory. It’s ironic that the same fans who worry that Ovechkin’s scoring titles have gone to his head also berate him for attempting one last pass to a teammate rather than shooting the puck as he races toward the opposing goaltender.
In a sports town where team leaders lately seem to lack many of the qualities that are essential for success, Ovechkin breaks the mold. In his interview with Ovechkin, Campbell asked if the heights of Ovechkin’s popularity pose a danger; does Ovechkin worry about the adulation of the fans, and the difficulty of living up to other peoples’ standards, Campbell wonders? Ovechkin’s answer encapsulates his personality: "You just have to do what you do, you just have to play hockey and just be who you are." I agree wholeheartedly, and would argue that the honesty with which Ovechkin lives his life actually protects him against the sort of downfall being experienced by Tiger Woods, or locally by Clinton Portis or Gilbert Arenas. Capitals fans shouldn’t hesitate to trust Ovechkin with the captaincy. He is authentic; what you see is what you get. There is no carefully constructed image deftly manipulated by a team of handlers, no hiding of his flaws.
It’s true that this season Ovechkin has had his fair share of run-ins with Colin Campbell and the NHL’s disciplinary group. A slew-footing fine and a two-game suspension for a knee-on-knee hit on Carolina Hurricane Tim Gleason have lead some to call Ovechkin "dirty" and "reckless." And there can be no doubting that Ovi plays with an edge. But I strongly disagree that he does so with the intent of injuring other players; if he missteps on the ice it is because he is so fully invested in what happens during the course of a game. Some fans are reluctant to have a leader like that; I am not.
People criticize Ovechkin because he doesn’t fit their clean, unobjectionable mold of a hockey player. Comparisons to Messier, Orr and Bure abound, but the truth is there has never been a player like Ovechkin in the history of the sport. Most comparisons contain that conditional conjunction "but…". I, for one, am looking forward to watching Ovi usher in a new era in hockey, one filled with bigger, faster, stronger, tougher players who give their all to every shift and score goals with abandon. And it is right that he should do it as leader of the Washington Capitals, the team with which he earned his reputation.
To be sure, there are obstacles on this team’s journey to the Stanley Cup, but something tells me Ovechkin is not one of them. Ovechkin continues to dazzle us with his abilities on the ice; let’s give him a chance to prove himself as captain before tearing him down.
Good luck, Alex.
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