Ever since the first NHLers began participating in the Olympic Games back in 1998, hockey fans have often found themselves with conflicting interests. Prior to 1998, you might keep an eye on one of your team's prospects, or cheer on a kid who went to your alma mater - but when all was said and done, you wanted to see your country's players atop the podium and hear your anthem played. That all changed with the Nagano games, though. Now, with players representing nations from around the world, you had to ask yourself whether you could root for your country if it meant rooting against the players who hold your attention the rest of the year.
On the surface, it may not seem like that hard of a question. After all, this is the Olympics, a tournament that pits country against country - if there's ever a time to be as obnoxiously nationalistic and patriotic as possible, and to ignore all previous allegiances, this is it. Over these two weeks you embrace the jingoism, don the stars and stripes (or maple leaf or two-headed bird or whatever) and root loudly and proudly for your home. Because as we've been told, as has been firmly ingrained in our minds from endless viewings of Miracle, the name on the front of the jersey is far more important than the one on the back.
But is it really that simple?
With the USA and Russia set to battle it out tomorrow morning, it's a question I've struggled with - perhaps more this year than any other Olympic year since '98, and more than I would if it were Sweden or the Czech Republic taking on the US. Because for me, these Olympics boil down to the USA vs. the world... and at the same time, Alex Ovechkin against the world.
It's hard to admit that I could even consider rooting "against" the Americans and freedom and bald eagles and apple pie in this particular matchup. After all, it's Team USA and all that stands for, and it's John Carlson, our Real American Hero. Furthermore, for anyone who grew up during any part of the Cold War-era, or in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, the mere idea of cheering on Russia in anything seems downright unnatural - almost traitorous. Even for those who only know Russia as it stands today, it may not be the most palatable of choices given what we know about the country, it's government and policies and whatever other context in which you want to view it.
...but it's Ovechkin. Putting aside everything else, it's Ovechkin, and while the idea of rooting against Team USA is a tough one to swallow, so too is the idea of ever rooting against Ovechkin. This is the guy we cheer on for nine months out of the year, the captain of our favorite team, a guy who has mesmerized us on an almost nightly basis and embraced the area and been embraced right back. No disrespect to Carlson, but there's Ovechkin and then there's everyone else. He is DC hockey personified, and has been since being drafted almost a decade ago.
As passionate and emotional as he is for so many things, he is the most passionate and most emotionally invested in winning a gold medal at the Olympics, on home ice, in front of his people. For someone who has experienced his fair share of heartaches and disappointments at both the NHL and international level, it feels like this should happen for him; for all of us who have experienced those heartaches and disappointments right along with him, it's hard not to want it to.
And so I find myself torn, constantly vacillating between one team or the other, rationalizing it one way and then turning around and rationalizing the complete opposite.
Sure, at the end of the day, it's just one game, one tournament. At the end of the day, I want the same thing I'd want for any of the Caps representing their homeland in Sochi this year - for all of them to play well and to stay healthy (and to beat Canada). And tomorrow's game is, of course, just one of many in the preliminary rounds, and ultimately the outcome may have very little impact on who eventually climbs to the top of the podium next week. It should be a good game, between two tough teams, and we should all be rooting for exactly that and perhaps nothing more at this point.
But as the field gets whittled down a bit and the preliminary round fades into the quarterfinals and beyond, there's a good chance that their paths will cross again before the tournament's conclusion. John Carlson and the Americans, looking to snap a 34-year-long gold medal drought, against Alex Ovechkin and the Russians, looking to win the only medal that is acceptable at this point and to do it on their home turf. Tomorrow's game is much more than "just one game", because it could be a preview of one that carries much more weight, and thus that much more conflict for us as Caps fans.
So with tomorrow's game drawing ever closer, do you root for country... or the captain?