Anyone who watched February 7th’s Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins game on NBC saw a hockey game for the ages. Sidney Crosby, captain of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pens, scored the game’s first two goals only to see Alexander Ovechkin, the two time defending NHL MVP, notch a hat trick and add an assist to propel the Caps to a thrilling, 5-4, overtime victory. Last season the Penguins eliminated the Capitals in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a series many hockey people were waiting to see since Crosby was taken first overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft after the Great #8 was drafted first overall in 2004. It was a tremendous battle with both Ovechkin and Crosby playing at the top of their respective games and the end result had #87′s crew winning out in a seven game marathon.
So with last year’s playoff series of the decade followed by last week’s regular season classic the Ovechkin vs. Crosby rivalry has reached a new pinnacle. Guess what though? Over the next two weeks that discussion is about to go worldwide as Crosy, who is Canadian, is favored to battle Ovechkin’s Russian squad for the gold medal in Vancouver on Sunday, February 28th. It might even go higher in May if these two clubs meet again in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Crosby, after notching a tally in his Valentine’s Day tilt against Nashvillie, has now tied Ovechkin for the NHL goal scoring lead (each has 42 this season) so that will further add fuel to the fire.
Personally, I think the rivalry is great and the fact that people want to argue about Ovechkin vs. Crosby is super for hockey and the NHL much like Gretzky vs. Lemieux turned people onto the game in the 80′s and 90′s. However, with the increasing interest in the NHL could this battle among the players respective camps become an even bigger story approaching the lines of Jack vs. Arnie or Tiger vs. Phil in golf or Manning vs. Brady in the NFL or Yankees vs. Red Sox in baseball or Magic vs. Bird back in the 80′s for the NBA? I’m not sure, because let’s face it, in the United States hockey is not really on the front burner but it is growing in popularity. One place this story is front and center, though, is in Canada. The people of the Great White North absolutely love hockey and with one of their own as a horse in the race naturally most Canadians tend to be in the Crosby camp. I have no issue with that, I will be the first one to tell you that you have to support your country. Crosby, who is a very skilled and fundamentally sound hockey player, was annointed the “next coming of the Great One” when he was very young and most Canadians could not wait until he reached the NHL. They are estactic that he is finally going to play for their country in the 2010 Winter Olympics. I can’t blame any of them for enjoying and taking pride in all of that.
Ovechkin, on the other hand, is a human highlight reel who is clearly the most entertaining player in hockey and arguably one of the best in all of sports today. He is that rare breed of athlete that possesses incredible skill but also has power and can bring the physical play that attracts many to the great game of hockey. Some of the goals he has scored in the NHL are legendary. Let’s be honest, he likely has saved hockey in the Nation’s Capital (granted hockey is a team sport so the other players, the coach, GM, owner, etc. deserve credit too) and even though Washington will always be thought of as a football town and home of some fabulous basketball history, the popularity of Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals has NEVER been greater in its 35 year existence as evidenced by the fact that the Caps now sell out every home game for the first time in their history. Television ratings are through the ceiling and just last week while trying to extend their 14 game winning streak they set another regular season viewing record on Comcast. You want to know how popular Ovechkin is? Many Caps fans are actually going to root for Russia in the Olympics! That seems insane based on what happened in Lake Placid in 1980 but it is true, granted the fact that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the world has dramatically changed since then helps make that much more possible. But still, people in DC rooting for Moscow’s team, who would ever think it? But on Sunday there was host David Gregory of Meet the Press, who is a Caps season ticket holder, asking Vice President Joe Biden about this very topic on the show. Incredible stuff.
Both athletes are fantastic players and are also leaders as evidenced by the fact that each is the team captain of their respecitve clubs. Clearly if you polled all 30 GM’s in the National Hockey League they would say you can build a team around either one of them. But in today’s society where competition is king, and personally I love competition, saying both are great just doesn’t seem to satisfy some people and many are asked to take sides. There is nothing wrong with that, these debates fuel interest in the NHL, and they are fun. I’ve had the very lucky pleasure of watching and interviewing both of them in person. Both are stand up guys who realize they need to talk to the media, who are the conduit to the fans, whether they win or lose on that day. Crosby and Ovechkin are incredibly polished when answering questions and almost always provide a response that is respectful to their opponents. Both players are great, Crosby has a Stanley Cup and Ovechkin has two MVP trophies. Both of those facts will be used in arguments as to why one is better than the other. The Crosby camp will point to their championship while the Ovie supporters say look at the individual hardware he has won. Neither is wrong.
What has gotten me upset about the debate though, is when someone in the media starts supporting one of the two by bashing the other. Given that hockey is fighting to regain its spot in the Big Four, I think it hurts the game when some big time media members take shots at one of the two in order to pump up the other (such as Mike Milbury’s “Hey Ovie, I’m still your daddy” comment in support of Sid after the first period of last Sunday’s game on NBC). Milbury says he was joking but when the game turned the Caps way did he ever make a joke back in support of Ovechkin?
It is okay for fans to do this, because fans are exactly that: fanatics, but for hockey media people to continually go down this route really hurts the game. In a blog I did back in December about the flack Ovechkin was taking from Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry for his style of play, it was pointed out that there was definitely a bias against the Great #8 (see quote from NHL Network analyst Craig Button). I then took Button’s remark a step further and said that the bias was a result of Ovechkin’s nationality and I think that stems from the fact that some Canadians don’t want a non-Canadian to be the centerpiece for what that nation considers to be their sport (although Russians would argue hard on that point, but that is a blog for another time), especially given that the Olympics are in their country this year. It seems that the diatribe against Ovechkin by Cherry, ironically, started 12 months ago with the Winter Games approaching (the former Boston Bruins coach blasted Ovie last February for, of all things, celebrating goals!).
To be fair though, there are MANY Canadians who love Ovechkin. On Washington’s most recent trip to Vancouver last December the Great #8 was reportedly, at that point in time, a bigger story than the event going on there right now. I am a regular listener to Jeff Marek’s daily Hockey Night in Canada Radio show and I can tell you that he is one prominent Canadian media member who is an Ovechkin fan. But Jeff is a Crosby fan too and he gets that promoting both is best for the sport. If you pinned Jeff down in the “who is better” debate, I am sure he would pick one or the other but rest assured, he probably wouldn’t do it by blasting the one he didn’t pick. When Cherry goes on his Ovechkin rants, especially the ones where he says “somebody is going to get him”, he not only shows his bias and looks foolish, but he hurts the game and pushes it more towards the pro wrestling realm. I say, if you want to pick one then argue your case taking a factual or analytical approach, such as:
Crosby is a center while Ovechkin is a left wing so you best build a team up the middle, or
Ovechkin plays more physical and a team needs to have that presence on its club so picking him makes most sense, or
Crosby has won a Stanley Cup so he is number one, or
Ovechkin has won two MVP’s so he is better, etc.
That is the way to debate it because the Ovechkin supporter could say, yeah Crosby has a Cup but that is because Pittsburgh picked in the top five in the NHL Draft five consecutive years in a row (from 2002 to 2006 they picked 5th, 1st, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd, getting Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Crosby, and Jordan Staal, respectively) while the Crosby camp could say, well if Sid didn’t have Malkin he would have been the MVP, etc. Keeping it at that level is more civilized then saying Ovechkin is dirty or a showboat or Crosby is a whiner, because in the end, the negativity only hurts hockey.
Let’s face it, hockey fans are a very unique crew and even Caps and Penguins fans or Leafs and Canadiens fans, despite their disdain for each other’s teams, are able to unify in a debate in support of their sport against someone who chooses to bash it (and believe me, in the US it happens often). If those types of fans can do it, then why can’t some of the media, who like to go the player bashing route, do it too? If the media is going to make things better for hockey overall, and it is in the best interest for those who cover the sport to help grow it, then in the Ovechkin vs. Crosby debate shouldn’t we decide to end the mudslinging once and for all? I don’t know about you, but it sure makes sense to me.