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Ovechkin Responds To The "Sultan of Canada"

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In today's issue of Sport-Express, Slava Malamud shared his thoughts on the recent Don Cherry fiasco, including Alex Ovechkin's response to the criticism.

Slava Malamud

Washington, D.C.

Alexander Ovechkin is currently such a well known figure in the NHL that he doesn't even have to do anything to become the star of the day. He simply has to exist, and those who wish to create some big, terrible controversy out of this will stop at nothing. Especially when you are talking about Don Cherry, who has made a name for himself in North America by creating big, terrible controversies.

Let me refresh your memory as to what was written in SE yesterday: several days ago the most well-known Canadian hockey commentator conspicuously struck out at Ovechkin. More particularly, he struck out at the way in which Ovechkin celebrates his goals. First, Cherry showed his television viewers some video clips of soccer players doing what they do better than anyone else. They danced on their bellies, put their hands to their ears, stuck out their tongues and screwed up their faces. Basically, they were celebrating an event which occurs in soccer noticeably less often than feigned injuries and a bit more often than fighting among fans-a goal. Then Don showed how Ovechkin celebrates his goals and asked "Do we want to see stuff like this in Canadian hockey?" From Don's point of view, it was a rhetorical question.

"Kids, act like Joe Thornton, like Sakic, Iginla, Shanahan, Bobby Orr or Yzerman" Cherry began his sermon.  "And now look at this guy. You know what, I'm going to tell you about this guy. He's got a free ride. He runs at guys, hits them, does this stuff. I am predicting that somebody is going to get him, and somebody is going to get him good. There's somebody out there. There's some big defenseman sitting in the weeds, and as he cuts across center ice somebody is going to cut him in half. You don't act like this goof."

Well. For those of you who aren't in the know, let me explain that this is classical Don Cherry.  To start his speech with a moral appeal to kids and to end it with an almost salacious expectancy of some type of horrible injury is classic Cherry style. Cherry's utterances are just as colorful as his gaudy jackets, and his Canadian ultra-nationalism is not only visible, it is manifoldly evident.

Basically, Don doesn't like how Ovechkin, after he makes a goal, jumps into the glass, blows kisses, yells out loud and plays it up for the fans. Don is calling for all honorable Canadians to wait in the weeds (an exact translation of Don's words) for Alexander with gaffs and pitchforks (which is the image this phrase calls to your author's mind). But while Canada is gathering in a soft patch of grass, the Washington public is up in arms, hockey fans are tilting at each other and arguing about whether Cherry is right or wrong, and Ovechkin is answering the Sultan of Canada, calling him a senile old man.

To complete the picture I present to you my conversation with Ovechkin from yesterday, in its entirety.

How did you react to what Don Cherry said?

"Yeah, well, why pay attention to a senile old man? He doesn't like the fact that I celebrate my goals like a soccer player. I'm sure he's just upset that Canada doesn't have a real soccer team. He has to gripe about something, so I guess he found a cause."

He didn't just gripe, but he also threatened you, saying someday somebody is going to "cut you in half".

"Well someday is someday. We'll see it when it happens. Someday something is probably going to happen to him too."

The tone of your voice makes it seem like this got to you.

"No, this couldn't get to me. I just think it's funny."

Maybe you'll think up some new way to celebrate a goal, special for him?

"Of course. I'll put on his jacket."

As we see, Ovechkin doesn't mince his words. We love him for that. True, it could also be said that Canada loves Cherry for exactly the same reason.

I want to say straightaway that Don is far from the fool that he appears, especially on the surface. Yes, his position is almost always radical, but in any case he is usually consistent in his views. He always speaks directly and is not afraid to admit he is wrong when proven so. The strangest thing is that Don has suddenly targeted Ovechkin in his sights, whom he was so complimentary of just a year ago in an interview with your correspondent.

"I really like Ovechkin" he said back then. "He plays like you have to play hockey. He has speed, he shoots, he hits... I think that he is the best player in the world. .... He plays like a Canadian! Seriously, think about it. Just like one of ours. Can I give him a higher compliment?"

This is also classic Don Cherry. So why the sudden turnaround? One year ago he "plays like a Canadian", and now "we don't need that kind of hockey". What's up, Don?

Cherry basically answers that question himself. In that very same television piece he admitted that he didn't like how Sidney Crosby totally lost his duel with Ovechkin, both on the ice and in the eyes of the public. Crosby said that he was abused and humiliated, while Ovechkin was praised. That really didn't sit well with the Canadian. Well you can understand his emotions. Ultimately, frenetic patriotism of the "he's right because he's one of ours" style is no stranger to our fans or journalists. Nonetheless, in this case Don is absolutely wrong. He is wrong about the main point, and that is the worst thing. If he were simply wrong about the details it really wouldn't matter.

Alas, in showing his film clips to the kids, Cherry didn't notice the most important thing. There is nothing terrible or wrong with ebullient joy during the celebration of goals. And if there is, then Ovechkin is not the only one guilty of this. Even Cherry's most highly praised Canadian, Tiger Williams, would ride his stick after every goal. Not to mention Don's client Crosby, who is also ready to jump into the glass every now and then. Or the joyful look on Paul Henderson's face as he jumped into the arms of Ivan Cornway after scoring the game-winning goal in the 1972 Superseries-- that is an icon of Canadian hockey to this day.  Conversely, in those days they loved to contrast the emotions and openness of the North Americans against the unnecessary seriousness of the Soviet players.

But there is a needlessly flamboyant goal celebration that you might be and you should be upset about-the one which shows a disdain for teammates. Are you familiar with this soccer scenario? You know, when a joyous goal scorer runs around the field, forcefully struggling away from the congratulations of his teammates. In Don Cherry's clips this was demonstrated several times. For me personally, this bacchanalia of egoism is not only annoying, it is insulting. What kind of narcissist do you have to be to almost use kung-fu to get away from the embrace of your teammate, because that hinders you performing your precious solo number?  This is a spit in the face of team sports. This is a statement that these other people didn't have anything to do with what just happened, and only I and I alone am deserving of celebration.

But what does Ovechkin do? Ovechkin runs and jumps into the arms of his partners. One of the most memorable images from last year's playoffs was Ovechkin and defenseman Mike Green floating around in some sort of mad dance. Having scored four goals in last year's match against Montreal, Alexander celebrated the victory with his buddies, even though their embrace seriously injured his freshly broken nose. After making his recent goal while on his butt, before Ovechkin could get up off the ice he started to wave the other teammates over to him. When he celebrates, Ovechkin doesn't separate himself from the team, but shares his joy with everyone-his partners, the fans, his countrymen, his bosses, Don Cherry, Gary Bettman. This is the main point of Ovechkin's celebrating that Don should have paid attention to.

How Cherry could fail to detect this key difference between Ovechkin and the soccer showmen is a mystery to me. As an observer who has made a reputation for himself for being able to separate the wheat from the chaff, this is an unpardonable mistake.