Sticking to Sports
The Washington Capitals raised the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Championship Banner
He and his teammates line up, arms around one another’s shoulders. Fireworks erupt behind NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who begins to speak. The speech feels agonizingly long — in reality, it is a hair under a minute until he says, “Alex Ovechkin, it’s your honor.” Ovechkin disentangles himself from the row of Capitals; as he skates toward Bettman, he turns back to his teammates, pumping his arms and offering the first of many celebratory shouts. He and Bettman shake hands awkwardly; Bettman says something in Ovechkin’s ear, to which he does not respond. The moment his hands touch the Cup, Ovechkin begins to shake. He lets out another cry and finally, finally, lifts the Stanley Cup.
Last Wednesday night at Capital One Arena, the Washington Capitals opened the 2018-19 NHL season by raising their first championship banner in franchise history. Between his first chance to hold Lord Stanley high and the banner raising, Ovechkin threw out two ceremonial first pitches at Nationals Park, went for a celebratory dip in a fountain at the Georgetown Waterfront, took the Stanley Cup to the World Cup and for a shockingly public trip around Moscow’s Red Square, and became a father to young Sergei Aleksandrovich Ovechkin. It was quite the summer, to say the least.
As tends to be the case for epic heroes, Ovechkin’s journey was a long one. In 2004, the Caps selected Ovechkin of the Moscow Dynamo, so coveted a prospect that the Florida Panthers (holders of the 2003 draft’s first pick) argued to the league that if leap years were taken into account Ovechkin ought to be draft eligible, with the first overall choice. At the time, the NHL, and the Caps in particular, needed a jolt. Shortly after Ovechkin’s drafting, the NHL locked out an entire season and needed a reason to get fans to return when the puck dropped again in 2005. The Capitals hurt even more than most. The 2001 signing of Jaromir Jagr to what was then the richest contract in league history proved disastrous, and it was the ensuing salary dump that eventually yielded the Caps the number one overall pick.
Enter Ovechkin. Six-foot-two. Two hundred and twelve pounds, but if you watched the nimbleness with which he evaded defenders when rushing the puck, brightly tinted visor flashing, you would be forgiven for believing he was closer to 185. (Of course, he also delivered a hit so hard on his very first NHL shift that it dislodged a pane of glass on the end boards).
By any metric, Ovechkin’s first act on the NHL stage was magnificent. He beat Pascal Leclaire of the Columbus Blue Jackets twice in his first game, notched a highlight reel goal in Phoenix that even Wayne Gretzky — then the Coyotes’ coach — had to double check the jumbotron to see how Ovechkin did it, and ultimately netted 52 goals and added 54 assists to beat out some Canadian kid named Sidney Crosby for the Calder Memorial Trophy.
For the duration of his career, Ovechkin would be inextricably linked to Crosby, with whom his NHL career began. According to the NHL media, dominated by trusted Canadian hockey men, Crosby became everything Ovechkin lacked. Ovechkin’s exuberant celebrations set a poor example for all young hockey players out there (heaven forbid they grow up thinking hockey could be fun); Crosby’s supposed stoicism respected the game. Crosby became known as a winner; Ovechkin, a choker. Each early playoff exit gave Steve Simmons, Don Cherry and Mike Milbury opportunity to tear down Ovechkin’s game. Bad in his own zone. Poor leader. Cares about himself more than winning. Bound to give up on the NHL and head back to Russia.
Ovechkin became a victim of one of sports media’s favorite narratives — that Ovechkin’s playoff losses reflected not just that he still had something to prove but that he was somehow incapable of ever winning.
At the start of the 2017-18 season, Ovechkin — coming off a summer in which the go-to hot take of the NHL media became “Trade Ovechkin” and the Caps lost Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner to salary cap constraints and the expansion draft — issued a bold proclamation: “We’re not gonna be [expletive] suck this year.”
Flash forward to April, when the playoffs began in a fashion all-too-familiar to Caps fans — the Caps blew two-goal leads and lost at home in their first two playoff games. Bold again, Ovechkin made a prediction — that the series would return to Washington tied at two for Game 5. The Caps did just that before winning the series in six games.
In the 2018 playoffs, Ovechkin unleashed 13 years of frustration — frustration at bowing out in the second round, frustration at playing second fiddle to Crosby. Words like “will” and “drive” are altogether overused in discussing sports, yet how else could Ovechkin’s play be described — the sprawling shot blocks, bone-jarring hits and one timers hammered home from his office (the top of the left circle; the office, also known as the Ovi spot, is always open, especially on the power play). Then there were the reaction GIFs, which belong in a museum.
Ovechkin didn’t need this cup to earn a place in the pantheon of NHL legends. It was the cherry on top of a Hall-of-Fame career. Whether you adjust for era or not, Ovechkin is one of the NHL’s greatest ever scorers, certainly the finest of his generation. Now he has added a Stanley Cup to his impeccable resume, to say nothing of a championship bender the likes of which we probably will never see again. That being said, years of National Broadcasting Company Sports Network, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The Sports Network cutups lampooning Ovechkin’s leadership, effort and playoff performances make the videos of Ovechkin’s “Cup stands” that much sweeter.
At 32, the silver streaks in Alex Ovechkin’s hair served as a reminder of his mortality. At 33, they now provide the Capitals’ captain with an air of distinguishment, with hair to match the shiny trophy he finally hoisted last June. Alex Ovechkin is a Stanley Cup champion. Finally.
Author’s note: Often forgotten throughout NHL circles and the Capitals’ cup run is Ovi’s longtime running mate, Swedish pivot Nicklas Backstrom. Because he is so often forgotten, I thought it necessary to include a brief aside on his career. At the 2006 draft, Ovechkin announced Backstrom as the fourth overall selection. For years, no matter the coach or pieces besides himself and Ovechkin, Backstrom has deftly quarterbacked the lethal Washington power play. Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock put it, “As much as you pressure Backstrom...he holds you off and he makes those (elite) plays.” In the opinion of this reporter, Backstrom is the NHL’s master of the saucer pass (watch Ovechkin’s Game 5 Stanley Cup final goal if you don’t believe me). Backstrom is many things — patient, dangerous in all three zones, afraid of dogs but not puppies, elite in terms of on-ice vision. Though his general lack of national attention means he avoided some of the vitriol worn by Ovechkin in the media, he took the Caps’ repeated early exits as hard as anyone. In the second round against the Penguins, Backstrom injured his hand so badly he couldn’t grip a stick until midway through the Caps’ third round series. By the time the Caps hoisted the Cup, Ovi had to help Nicky steady the Cup over his head thanks to the injury. Among the greatest pleasures of the Capitals Cup run was watching the normally even-keeled Backstrom’s emotions manifest as they never had before, proof of just how badly he wanted the Cup.