December 04, 2009
We post this with the understanding that we're all a little Ovechkin'd out this week in the wake of his first NHL suspension (mazal tov!).
The point of exhaustion set in right around the time Ovechkin's mother/contract negotiator blamed Tim Gleason for injuring her son and Jim Kelley of Sports Illustrated wrote an asinine, irresponsible bizarro-world version of a hockey column suggesting that Ted Leonsis's support of his meal ticket is akin to encouraging Ovechkin to attempt to cripple another Steve Moore.
In light of Ovechkin's recent news, we've been asked by a few people this week about our fabled Sidney Crosby mini-doc in which we argued that he's more marketable as a villain than the hero. Nate Ewell, the Washington Capitals media guy, asked if the Ovechkin reactions had "turned the Sid-as-villain theory on its head?"
The theory has always been less about Sidney Crosby(notes) than our opinion that hockey needs more heels, more villains, more dark to counteract the light. It's a marketing theory we've voiced many times, and something Sean Avery(notes) has astutely mentioned in the past during interviews.
If anything, outrage over Ovechkin's "style of play" that's spilled through fan bases and into the media this week has pushed us to a moment where that theory can be put to the test. Because there are as many people bashing Ovechkin as defending him, and that "I don't give a damn" attitude that played so well when he burst onto the scene just seems to play differently for some today, now that he's got the rap sheet.
There's a newly translated Russian interview with Ovechkin, conducted before the Gleason knee-on-knee hit. It's the sort of thing we've read from Ovechkin before: Playful, flirty, defiant, a tad egotistical. The question is, after reading the endless reactions and psychoanalysis of his personality and style of play this week, does it play a little differently than it did previously?
Japers' Rink and Russian Hockey Fans both had this Ovechkin SovSport interview, and kudos to the Russian media for knowing that a woman brings out the best of Ovie in these sessions.
Here is Anna Nasekina, Russian five-time synchronized swimming world champion, speaking with Ovechkin:
There's probably no place left on earth where you can sit in peace?
"Come on! Some places they know me, some places they don't. It's not hard to sign autographs and pose for pictures. Basically, my philosophy is ‘what the hell'. This popularity is not really important to me" said Ovechkin, carelessly scribbling on a notepad.
So a star can never be captured?
"The illness of fame can be lost just as quickly as it is found."
Well it seems to me that the reputation of ‘caveman' flatters you.
"They call me caveman because I don't care what others think of me. I couldn't care less about anyone or anything."
If you didn't care about anything then you couldn't play the way you do.
"Well maybe I play the way I do only because it's all the same to me."
You mean to tell me that your manly unshaven face, your nonchalance, your missing tooth and yellow skates aren't part of your image?
"You want some wine?" (Ovechkin suddenly changes the subject, taking a drink of a red California wine.)
No thanks. Does someone create your image in the NHL? There must be a whole industry of image-makers there. (I continue the attack on the brink of a foul.)
"I'm my own image-maker."
And fights-are they an integral part of the game?
"I don't fight. I hit. If I'm not doing it, I'm receiving it. Have you ever been to Beijing?" (Once again Ovechkin changes the subject.)
Again, this is vintage Ovechkin, the guy who talked about speeding in front of the White House and sex before games. It's the sort of stuff that's made him something more than just a dynamic performer on the ice.
But when you have nearly half the players in a TSN sample saying he's a dirty player and smart hockey people like Elliotte Friedman saying he needs to bring his game down a few notches to avoid serious injury, the "I could care less" coolness is irrevocably tied to the "maybe it just gets me more angry" defiance.
The "Ovi being Ovi" personality that's made him a superstar can no longer be separated from the "Ovi being Ovi" style of hockey that his own coach (before an epic, Michael Jackson Moonwalk-level backtrack) called "pretty reckless."
He's too good and too compelling to be a loathsome player; and despite the adventures in ego, he's far from being a loathsome individual. But at this time last year, the fans who would have defended him from suspension would have far outweighed the ones that wanted the NHL to nail him. That's not the case in 2009. Something's changed in his hockey celebrity to draw the sort of negative responses he has from ooth the establishment and a good number of hockey fans this week.
What hasn't changed is Ovechkin himself, from the time he won the Calder to this suspension. No star burns hotter in the NHL today, and the public indignation or celebration of him this week is an indication that his anti-hero status is something that transcends hockey.
He needs to be more careful on the ice, for the sake of his own health. But if he wants to play the heel, or if the media wants to treat him as one, let'em. It's better for the NHL in the end.