Andrey Arshavin and Alex Ovechkin are Russia's two most prominent team-sports athletes. They are the biggest stars in the most popular sports in Russia--soccer and hockey--and both have left Russia to play in the best leagues in the world: Arshavin with Arsenal in the English Premier League and Ovechkin with the Capitals in the NHL. They each captain the Russian national team in their respective sports.
More than those superficial similarities, they are very similar players. Both rose to prominence through goal-scoring prowess, and in similar styles. Arshavin is a right-footed attacker who often plays on the left wing and likes to come inside to get off a powerful shot. Ovechkin is a right-handed attacker who plays on the left wing and likes to come inside to get off a powerful shot. Ovechkin is big and powerful and physical and Arshavin is . . . not, so that's a difference. But being physical is a much bigger part of hockey, so we'll let that slide.
More importantly, the trajectory of their careers is similar, for better and increasingly for worse. Alex Ovechkin took the NHL by storm. He scored one of hockey's iconic goals on the way to a Calder Trophy in his rookie year, and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in both 2008 and 2009, scoring 65 goals in '07-'08--the highest single season total since before Jacques Lemaire killed hockey. Arshavin did not have quite the same league-wide impact upon joining Arsenal for a team-record 15 million pound transfer fee after a captivating performance for Mother Russia in the 2008 Euros. But when he scored all four Arsenal goals in a thrilling 4-4 draw at perennial power Liverpool in 2009, he announced himself as an elite scoring talent. His crucial goal against Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League quarterfinals seemed to cement his place as an Arsenal star.
Today, Andrey Arshavin is back in Russia, having requested a loan back to his former team, Zenit St. Petersburg. It seems unlikely that he will ever feature for Arsenal again. Arshavin tumbled out of the sports firmament due to . . . what? No one knows for sure. What is certain is that he lost his scoring touch and with it the adoration of the fans. Possible explanations include: he just doesn't really like to work as hard as the EPL requires; he was great until people figured his moves out; his coach never quite figured out where to play him to get the maximum out of him.
That will all sound very familiar, and worrisome, to Washington Capitals fans. Since the 2010 Winter Olympics, in which Russia and Ovechkin were, um, defeated, by Canada and Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin has been a shadow of his former self. Former teammates describe him as insufficiently hard-working and too focused on celebrity to do what it takes to succeed in the NHL. Anyone who watches hockey can see that the moves that used to dazzle opponents no longer work, stifled by defenses that seem to anticipate everything he does. And he isn't very good at the turgid, defensive hockey that everyone says must be played to win a Stanley Cup.
What lies over the horizon for Ovechkin? Is it possible that Ovechkin could follow Arshavin back to Russia, a brief rocket across the Western sports sky? The NHL really, truly, most definitely does not want to break up its season so its players can play Olympic games in the middle of the night in Russia in 2014. If it says "No" to the Olympics, that would give Ovechkin a perfect excuse to announce that he can no longer play in North America and that he must accept the piles of rubles some Russian oligarch will pay him to score goals at will in the KHL.
While Arsenal fans wondered at the wisdom of letting a top-flight talent walk away at a pivotal point in the season, they were not especially sad to see Arshavin go. And the team has thrived in his absence. Ovechkin is still young enough and talented enough to regain his glory. Caps fans desperately hope he does. At current levels of production, he is worth nowhere near the $9.5 million per year the Caps owe him through 2021. The day may come when Caps fans are just as nonchalant as Arsenal fans about their Russian star returning east.