THIS COUNTRY: NHL PLAYOFFS: EASTERN CONFERENCE: WHO WINS BATTLE OF THE ALL-STARS?
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Ovechkin and Crosby are two of the giants of hockey, but one has become the fans' favourite - for his talent, his antics, his heart and the huge fun he's having - while the other has seemingly become what Russians were once considered to be, robotic
E-mail Roy MacGregor
May 6, 2009
There's nothing wrong with the ad - but perhaps the casting could be better.
The commercial is for Tim Hortons coffee, Canada's official blood, and it involves a team bus pulling over on a dark winter's evening, snow gently falling as the disappointed driver announces, "Sorry guys, looks like this is going to take a while."
There are children playing shinny on a nearby frozen pond, and one of the players on the bus sees this through the window he was likely just sleeping against.
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He gets out with his skates and stick and goes to the pond, turning one youngster speechless with a simple, "Can I play?"
That's Sidney Crosby asking; Alexander Ovechkin wouldn't ask. He wouldn't want to lose any playing time.
"Did I miss anything?" a man arriving late asks as the bus starts up again, Crosby back aboard.
Well, if he missed the first two games of the Eastern Conference semi-final, Ovechkin's Washington Capitals against Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins, he may have missed the finest hockey exhibition that the so-called new NHL has seen.
Canada's Best Player against Canada's Favourite Player.
Make that the World's Favourite Player - at least in the world of imagination that is inhabited by the very young.
They could make a sweeter ad right in Ovechkin's very own neighbourhood in Arlington, Va., where the Washington Capitals star lives. A year ago during the playoffs, children from a nearby elementary school began leaving handwritten notes, and the odd Teddy bear, on his doorstep to wish him luck.
Children can be harsh critics, as well.
After one 7-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers this season, Ovechkin stepped out to find someone had left an egg but no note - no note required to say he had just laid one himself.
Ovechkin's popularity among children seems sure to rival that of past idols such as Wayne Gretzky and the Maurice (Rocket) Richard of Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater.
This is not a knock against Crosby's phenomenal skills, not in the least - he matched Ovechkin goal-for-goal Monday night as each scored a brilliant hat trick and Ovechkin's team won 4-3, giving Washington a 2-0 series lead - but it is a recognition that Ovechkin touches something that is denied most stars.
Children love his absolute joy of playing. They love the leap into the boards after every goal. They love the new Hip Bump with which 23-year-old Ovechkin and young 21-year-old Nicklas Backstrom celebrate victories. They loved Ovechkin's clown getup for the shooting competition at the all-star game. And they loved his stick-on-fire routine following his 50th goal of the season.
Don Cherry attacked Ovechkin for this on Coach's Corner, and the support for Ovechkin's bringing a little delight to the game was so overwhelming that, in subsequent weeks, Cherry backed off and even began praising the Russian star.
Ovechkin is not only good for the game, he is becoming the game, just as only Gretzky has done previously.
So great has been his impact on the Capitals that his 13-year, $124-million (U.S.) contract now seems a bargain. But his impact is far beyond that, heard in every road hockey and ministicks game in the world. Kids simply take to him. Perhaps it is because his Stone Age features give him the look of an action figure - one whose every stride and shot is so instantly recognizable he no longer needs that number, 8, to be identified. Perhaps because he is Captain Underpants to Crosby's Curious George, somehow more modern, more mischievous, more alluring to them.
Crosby is huge in Pittsburgh - he's nearly five storeys high on a banner hanging from the new rink going up at the corner of Washington Place and Fifth Avenue - and huge in Canada, where it is hoped he will bring back Olympic gold; but his demeanour at the rink is as though he has come to a board meeting of the Toronto-Dominion Bank. Ovechkin, on the other hand, always looks like recess has just been let out.
It is hard to believe that a generation ago Russian players - then known as Soviet Union players - were routinely dismissed as "robots."
It was a knock that began in the 1972 Summit Series and lasted through to Glasnost. Writing in 1987, columnist John Robertson reflected the thoughts of many when he complained he was sick of hearing that "the red robots from the Soviet Union" were giving lessons "on how our game should be played.
"In a pig's ear," Robertson railed. "The so-called Soviet system so many of our hockey geniuses see fit to applaud and envy, is inseparable from the abysmal depths of human degradation inflicted upon all Soviet citizens by the intrinsically evil rulers in the Kremlin."
It was said then that what would always separate Canadian hockey players from Russian players was "heart." The sort of passion Bobby Clarke showed in 1972 when he deliberately broke Valeri Kharlamov's ankle to help his team win.
Some Soviet players even acknowledged this critical difference; one player, Slava Fetisov, even called himself and his teammates "robots on ice."
But then everything changed.
The wall fell and Fetisov and many of his teammates came to play in the NHL. No one ever again questioned Russian "heart" after the Russian Five - Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov, who later lost his hockey career to a car accident - were so pivotal in bringing the Stanley Cup to the Detroit Red Wings in 1997.
Today, a dozen years later, the three finalists for hockey's main individual trophy, the Hart, are all Russian: Ovechkin, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings. Ovechkin already won the Rocket Richard Trophy as leading goal scorer and Malkin took the Art Ross Trophy as the leading point getter. Datsyuk is also up for the Selke Trophy as the league's best checker and the Lady Byng as the league's most-gentlemanly player. Most astonishing of all, however, may be that Russian Alex Kovalev of the Montreal Canadiens is one of the three finalists for the league award that goes to the most community-minded player.
Robots no more.
In fact, if you had to look for a comparison for the obvious passion that Ovechkin is showing these playoffs, you could do no better than ... Clarke.
The hockey world has changed that dramatically.