Is There a Bias Against Ovechkin?

December 02, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

DC and the word “Change” are inextricably being linked again and this time it is not in reference to politics. Now, in 2009, the word “Change” is being used in a new context as in “Alexander Ovechkin has to change the way he plays hockey.”

I’ve read it from well known hockey writers such as Scott Morrison of CBC Sports, Scott Burnside of ESPN, and Craig Custance of the Sporting News who all are calling for the Great #8 to at least consider changing his game and style. Many, in light of the recent incidents involving Ovechkin (slew foot against Rich Peverly, major boarding call against Patrick Kaleta, and now the kneeing major on Tim Gleason), are agreeing with that assessment, perhaps because on the surface it seems like a natural and logical thing to do? They say, “Hey, Ovechkin just needs to bring it a notch down,” or “He needs to pick his spots better and be more careful.”

But is this call for him to change his physical style, much like the backlash Ovechkin received last season for celebrating goals, really justified?

First, from a pure hockey standpoint, the vast majority of the people demanding for him to tone it down have never played the game at the NHL level and have no comprehension of the competitive pace of these contests. If he were to not go as hard would he be as effective and would he expose himself to even more risk? The answers to those questions are very likely, no and yes, respectively. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau addressed this today.

“I don’t want him to change the way he plays at all, either. When I said reckless, I was using the term in fear of him getting hurt, not him hurting anyone else. He’s got to be him, I don’t want him to change,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winning coach.

Ovechkin himself has said “How can you ask me to stop playing hard?”

Second, exactly why do some very vocal people around the sport of hockey want him to change? If he stops playing the way he does don’t we lose what makes him so great? People flock to watch this guy because of his power, speed, strength, and amazing ability plus the pure joy and emotion he brings to each and every game he suits up for. He attracts people to the game, much like Wayne Gretzky did, as evidenced by the full buildings he routinely plays in front of. Yet people like Don Cherry want him to quit celebrating or playing the way he does. Why is this?

Struggling a bit to properly answer these questions I went searching for answers and I found them very quickly in a conversation with former Calgary Flames GM and current NHL Network analyst Craig Button.

First, I asked Craig about the hit on Monday and he replied, “There is no defense of the play on Gleason but I would surmise that Alex would say it was an action he was not proud of, but he plays hard and he plays aggressive.”

Button has been a supporter of Ovechkin in the past, especially on the celebration issue. I asked him about all of the criticism Alex is receiving for his recent physical play, and he brought up some other NHL stars, past and present, who crossed the line but never seemed to garner the huge negative public response that the Great #8 has been hearing recently.

“Mark Messier went over the line on numerous occassions but there was never a backlash against him. Bobby Clarke is revered for what? A slash on [Valeri] Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series [that helped Canada to defeat the Soviet Union]!” started Button, “So give me a break that he has to change his game.”

“I’ve never heard that Chris Pronger needs to change his game and what about Mike Richards?” started the former GM. Pronger has been suspended numerous times for various infractions such as crosschecking, high-sticking, and slashing and even worse was banished for eight games for stomping on Ryan Kesler’s leg in 2008. Richards, who didn’t even get a game suspension for his hit on Florida’s David Booth that still has the young forward on the sidelines due to a concussion, barely received any flack for his play.

“What did we hear after the Richards hit? The league needs to do this or do that [on head shots], nothing specifically about Richards so why when Ovechkin does this is all the talk about him and his style?” questioned the man who drafted superstar Jarome Iginla and prominent players such as Marty Turco and Brendan Morrow.

“Look, noone wants injuries, that is agreed, but don’t change your game. If I was his GM or Coach I would say “Don’t change your game one bit, people know you are out there,” added Button, implying that if Ovechkin did try and ease up he would likely lose at least some of his effectiveness.

Then he brought up a valid comparison from another sport.

“He is an engine that runs at high RPM’s. Look at NASCAR, there are accidents, but do you have to change the way you drive? No, because if you did you wouldn’t win,” continued Button.

“It is up to the league to suspend him and deal with actions that cross the line, but to say he shouldn’t celebrate or he shouldn’t be physical, what is that?” questioned Button.

“We should celebrate this guy, he’s exciting, he’s a thrill, he brings people to our game, there is nothing vanilla about him,” he explained before summing things up with the following simple, but seemingly accurate assessment.

“I think there is a bias against Alexander Ovechkin.”

I thought that last point was really telling. So I started doing my own thinking after the conversation with Button. During the NHL work stoppage in 2004 and 2005 there were two incredible players that were drafted #1 overall in successive years that had the potential to be the face of the NHL for the future, Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Who has the league chosen as their poster boy? Crosby.  Also, if you look at the list of players that Button mentions that played on the edge and, at times, have crossed the line, much like Ovechkin has done on occassion, what do they all have in common with Crosby? They are all Canadian. Alexander Ovechkin is Russian. 

So is there a bias from some in the game against Ovechkin? Does he threaten to shatter some of the “traditional hockey” axioms that predominanlty have come from the Great White North when it relates to the NHL? You can do the math on your own, but I know where I stand.