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The Inextricable Alex Ovechkin

Supporting the Caps has been challenging lately, in a lot of ways

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Toronto Maple Leafs v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

This was supposed to be a celebration.

“Can you believe what he’s doing at 36 years old?”

This was supposed to be a celebration and for a while it was, the beginning of the home stretch of a two-decade pursuit of hockey’s most glamorous record. “The ageless Alex Ovechkin” was leading the League in goals and points as late as January 23; 42 games into his 17th NHL campaign, he was threatening to out-point everyone else on the circuit for the first time since Auston Mathews was ten years old.

Then the Caps got bad.

Then everything got bad.

Ovechkin tested positive for the coronavirus on February 2, forcing him to miss the All-Star Game and, more importantly, two regular-season games, and has been a bit snake-bitten over the past month and change (two non-empty-net goals on 42 shots in his last 11 games).

But those struggles, like most in sports, are trivial compared to real-world events. And while more often than not it’s easy to compartmentalize the two, in this case, that’s impossible. There is no “stick to sports” when an athlete in the center of a sport’s universe is (and has been) an enthusiastic supporter of the man whose actions are being formally condemned by the overwhelming majority of the free world; there is only weighing how much that matters to you.

For much of his career, Ovechkin’s support of Vladimir Putin has been an uncomfortable reality, with the occasional flare-up, something most fans (and even critics) could push to the side (the way they might with similar star athletes) to focus on the on-ice greatness. But that’s gotten more and more difficult to do as Putin’s atrocities have escalated and Ovechkin’s actions and statement on the matter did little in the way of providing observers with the cover they, frankly, so desperately want. Change the avatar. Call for a peaceful resolution to the situation, not just a quick one. Do something.

Of course, it’s reasonable - indeed important - to wonder just what he could do, realistically. Alex Ovechkin’s family is in Russia right now (not that international borders have necessarily stopped retribution in the past), and the reality is that Ovechkin, by virtue of his superstardom, his personality, heck, even the location of his home games, has always presented a unique opportunity for Kremlin messaging. Evgeni Malkin, Artemi Panarin and so on down the list aren’t Alex Ovechkin; to what extent did Alex Ovechkin make the bed in which he’s now having to sleep, and to what extent was that bed made up for him?

In lieu of more definitive action from the man himself, that’s the line that Ovechkin fans have to walk these days. If you can convince yourself that he has no real choice in the matter and is something of a victim, you’re probably not having a hard time rooting for him today as you did a month ago. If you can’t, well... it’s gotten harder, even for fans that have defended him through all that he went through until winning the Stanley Cup finally validated his existence for much of the hockey world, even for fans to whom he delivered a level of joy they probably never thought they’d experience.

Ovechkin is right, of course, that the matter is out of his control - Alex Ovechkin has an even smaller chance of stopping Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine than Putin does of stopping an Ovechkin one-timer from his office. It’s a hard situation. Ovechkin said it. Brian MacLellan said it. We said it. Ovechkin is losing sponsors and fans left and right and it doesn’t seem that there’s anything he can - or is willing to - do about it.

Can you believe what he’s doing at 36 years old?