The Ovechkin Backlash

For months the hockey media has somewhat reluctantly come around to recognize the special talent that is Alexander Ovechkin. At the same time that stories of fellow phenom Sidney Crosby's erratic temperment and Louganisian exploits have been a near-daily news item, little but praise has been heaped upon the Caps' young Russian, both for his play on the ice and attitude on and off the sheet.

That all ended on Monday night when Ovechkin was benched for a span of about 14 minutes. In mere hours, Ovechkin went from the consummate team-player, to a typically selfish European who wouldn't recognize his own goalie if he bumped into him on the street for lack of time spent in his defensive zone. This anti-Ovechkin backlash was swift and predictable, circulating throughout a mainstream hockey (read: Canadian) media that had annointed Crosby "The Next One" before he was even drafted and has copy to sell.

The latest salvo in the re-imaging of Alex Ovechkin comes from the Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek in an article entitled "Ovechkin's Benching Shouldn't Be A Surprise." Asshatschek Duhatschek praises the Caps' coaching staff for sitting Ovechkin, who, "after all, isn't the first young player to get caught up in own goals at the expense of team goals," and I agree that head coach Glen Hanlon did the right thing by treating his young star the same as he would treat anyone else on the team.

But Duhatschek's article makes it clear that he has not watched Ovechkin enough this year to make the blanket statements he makes about Alex's play or what Alex means to his team and instead has lazily resorted to borderline-xenophobic stereotypes ("[p]hilosophically, getting Ovechkin to think team thoughts is the same issue that the Atlanta Thrashers are facing with their brilliant young Russian forward, Ilya Kovalchuk and it's also the same issue that super prospect Evgeni Malkin's Russian Superleague team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, faces at home as well." What, you couldn't think of a Canadian example?).

Duhatschek is, of course, way off base. in his assesment of Ovechkin's play and attitude, and pushes the envelope on generalizations based on national origin. Consider:
  • Ovechkin currently leads the Caps with 42 assists, 14 more than his next closest teammate, and AO's total would be much higher if he was surrounded by any more talent. There's a reason that Chris Clark has surpassed and Dainius Zubrus will surpass career highs in goals for a single season this year, and that reason is Alex Ovechkin. In fact, Ovechkin may become the first player in NHL history to have more goals and more assists than the second-highest point getter on his team has points (Zubrus currently has 41 points). What a selfish player.
  • Ovechkin and his two linemates (the forementioned Clark and Zubrus) are the only Caps with a significant number of games played who have postive plus/minus ratings (AO is +2). On a team with a negative-71 goal differential, that is simply astounding. By contrast, Kovalchuk is -9 on a team that has both scored and yielded 230 goals and Canadian youngster Eric Staal has a minus-one rating on a team that has scored 46 more goals than it has allowed.
  • Duhatschek makes the claim that "[e]ven though the Russians have been coming for more than two decades (and they get picked high in the draft, the same as Americans and Canadians), there is no real good example (yet anyway) of a Russian player leading a team to a championship." Ask the Tampa Bay Lightning how they feel about that statement. Red Wings fans might even have a name or two that they'd like to throw out there as well.
  • Further to the "and they get picked high in the draft, the same as Americans and Canadians" line, in the past 10 NHL entry drafts, 49 Canadians have been top-10 picks, while only 17 Americans and 12 Russians have been. The first overall pick has been a Canadian six times in that span, while it has twice been a Russian and once been an American. So I guess Duhatschek is partially right and should have stopped his blather after "Russians... are picked high in the draft, the same as Americans."
While I have drifted from my initial defense of Alex Ovechkin into an attack on Eric Duhatschek's ignorant stereotypings, the larger point is that maybe the media is latching on to the Ovechkin benching because they want to sell a Calder Trophy race that simply doesn't exist (hint: the one that does is between Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist). Maybe they want to create controversy where there is none (as Ovechkin's 27+ minutes of ice time last night will attest). That's all fine - they have to sell papers. But they do themselves and their trade a disservice when, instead of research and well-thought out analysis, they fall back on tired stereotypes and apply them where they don't fit. Perhaps with guys like Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin dispelling the old "Swedes are soft" company line, "Russians are selfish" is all they have left to cling to. Somewhere, Don Cherry is crying.

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