"Every Canadian dreams of playing like Ovechkin" - Bobby Clarke
"He plays like a Canadian!" - Don Cherry
"Ovechkin does not play like a Russian. He plays like an NHL player." - Vladislav Tretiak
Three quotes from three men who have each logged more than forty years in the game of hockey, all saying the same thing: Alex Ovechkin doesn't play the game like any Russian they've ever seen. And while Clarke's and Cherry's quips were clearly intended to convey a level of admiration and respect, Tretiak's observation came across as anything but complimentary; Tretiak's comment was a warning.
Over the past week, Alex Ovechkin has been getting crushed by the media for his on- and off-ice performances at the Olympics. Some of the criticism has been fair. Some of it... not so much. But if the two-time reigning Hart Trophy winner has been guilty of anything while on the ice, it's been of playing a style of hockey that his teammates were unable or unwilling to play. Throughout the tournament, the Russians played a finesse game full of wishful cross-ice passes and dangling one-on-one moves, seemingly devoid of forechecking or any initiating of contact - a style that is about as likely to elicit the best in Ovechkin as "Zamfir Plays OK Computer" would showcase the brilliance of Radiohead's triple platinum record. (Interestingly, it didn't seem to bring out the best in Ovechkin's most wishful, dangliest teammate either, but that's neither here nor there.)
The point is exactly as Tretiak put it: Ovechkin does not play like a Russian. And when a team's best player doesn't play like the rest of his team (and is the only one capable of providing any sort of energy or passion), it's likely a recipe for failure, and it's precisely what we saw in Vancouver: square peg, round hole, no medal.
But do you know where Alex Ovechkin does fit, and rather perfectly at that? In the NHL. In Washington. Want to hit someone? Dump the puck in and hunt down the defenseman unlucky enough to retrieve it. Want to launch missiles from the power-play point rather than being thrown in front of the net to try to collect garbage that never arrives? Gabby's got you covered. Want to play to the left of a pivot with eyes in the back of his head with whom you actually have chemistry? There's a pretty good one in D.C.
AO's two-week adventure to Vancouver ended prematurely, and that's something that's going to be hard to get over. But, despite being among fellow countrymen, he didn't really fit in there at all. Now he's on his way back to his second home to reunite with Americans, Canadians and a few Europeans, which is exactly where he belongs. Because he plays their game and they play his. And it works.