Alexander Ovechkin, the two-time defending Hart Trophy winner for NHL MVP, leads the NHL this season in goals (nine), points (16) and shots (61) in just eight games, and all of those numbers are on a pace significantly higher than his career average. Keep in mind that Ovechkin notched 65 goals in 2007-08, 56 last season, and if he keeps up the current rate he would tie Wayne Gretzky’s single season goal scoring record of 92, set in 1981-82 . Meanwhile the Washington Capitals, the two-time defending Southeast Division Champions, are off to a 4-2-2 start and are going to break the franchise attendance record this year by likely recording 41 straight regular season sell outs (18,277 per game). This in an area that a few years ago was being called by some people a “dead zone” for hockey.
Then with the drafting of the Great #8 with the number one overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry draft along with some other excellent Washington selections (such as center Nicklas Backstrom (2007) and defenseman Mike Green (2004), to name just a couple) things turned around 180 degrees and made the Capitals a really fun team to watch. Their contests are as close to a “Can’t Miss” hockey event not only in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area but in portions of Canada as well. This franchise has had success before and that usually has coincided with winning, however, the entertainment factor in Washington has never been higher and much of that can be attributed to Ovechkin, the man voted most popular athlete in DC this summer.
So fresh off Alexander the Great’s incredible Saturday night performance against the Nashville Predators where “Ovie” notched two goals in regulation plus added the only shootout tally on a “sick” move that resulted in hats being thrown on the Verizon Center ice, I started asking myself the following question: Is Alexander Ovechkin the Most Entertaining Player in the NHL right now? Without hesitation, I answered yes, which then led me to my next question:
Is Ovechkin the Most Entertaining NHL player in the league’s history or at least as long as I’ve been watching hockey regularly (since 1974-75, the inaugural year of the Capitals franchise)?
Now I’ve seen entertaining superstars such as Gretzky (best player and passer ever), Mario Lemieux (unbelievable player and goal scorer), Paul Coffey (rushed the puck better than any other defenseman I can recall), and Grant Fuhr (spectacular and acrobatic goaltender) but I didn’t get to watch Boston defenseman Bobby Orr in his day, or winger Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks who helped change the game with his blistering slap shot, and I really wasn’t able to view Guy Lafleur of the Canadiens on a regular basis either in his prime.
However, I have to think that the Great #8, from a shear entertainment value, is equal to or even surpasses those other players based on just his first four-plus seasons in the league. We’ve all witnessed “the goal” or other spectacular moments like this one against Montreal last February, but when you are talking about Ovechkin, it isn’t just those plays that make him special – it is the energy and excitement he brings on a shift by shift basis. So adding all of those factors up I feel really strong in my belief that Alexander the Great is the most entertaining player I’ve ever seen in my 35 plus years of watching hockey.
But perhaps I am biased in my view because I get to see the Great #8 play every night? I mean, maybe I am wrong and people think the most entertaining NHL player right now is either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins or some other? So I had to get an unbiased opinion, someone who has worked in the league at the executive level and analyzes the NHL on a daily basis. I was able to find that in the NHL Network’s Craig Button, the former GM of the Calgary Flames who also has a Stanley Cup ring from his days as Director of Player Personnel for the Dallas Stars.
“To me, there is no question he is the most entertaining player in the NHL right now,” started Button right out of the gate, “we all know he is big, strong, and powerful but what separates him from everyone else, to me, is his unbridled enthusiasm for hockey- he loves to play the game.” Button then went on to tell me a story about a time when he was in Tampa Bay to see the Caps and Lightning play and he asked the Bolts PR Director if he could buy a ticket to the game, AFTER it was played, because he felt “it was cheating” to not pay to witness what was an incredible performance by Ovechkin that evening.
So I had the first answer I was looking for and then I brought up the bigger one, is Ovechkin the most entertaining player ever? Button did not hesitate with his reply.
“I grew up in Montreal in the 70’s and Guy [Lafleur], whenever he grabbed the puck, you got on the edge of your seat and everyone inhaled to see what was going to come next because you knew something great was going to happen. To me Ovie is the same as Guy,” declared Button, validating my thinking that perhaps Ovechkin could be considered the most entertaining player in NHL history.
When someone in any realm of life, and especially in sports, is considered super or at an elite level, you don’t need to say a whole lot to get people to describe them, and sure enough that is what happened talking to Button about the Great #8.
“Passion, to me that is what makes and separates good from very good to great and he has that plus enthusiasm.”
“He is like the best sports car in the world, whether you consider that to be a Ferrari or a Lamborghini.”
From listening to Hockey Night in Canada Radio (hosted by Jeff Marek on Sirius) over the last couple of years it sounds to me that many Canadian fans now root for their hometown team first, whether it be Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, or Vancouver; and then the Capitals second. I asked Button, who lives in Calgary but travels to Toronto regularly for “NHL On the Fly”, if that really was the case and if it was because of Ovechkin.
“Yes and the only people not happy to see him is the team who is playing against him that night,” Button chuckled.
We then talked about the Ovechkin 50th goal last season and the “Stick on Fire” celebration that ensued and was criticized by many, including Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry. Button was clearly in the Great #8’s corner.
“I went on TV and defended him. When you see #8 play, to me he is not meaning that as disrespectful, he doesn’t do that every goal or game, his enthusiasm is real,” started Button, “I told our guys at the network to put a camera on Ovechkin when he is on the bench so we could see him celebrating when other guys score. He is so genuine, so real, our game needs him!”
With the proclamation that the NHL needs Ovechkin our talk turned to the state of the game and I asked Craig if perhaps Ovechkin and Crosby could take the NHL to a new level much like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson took the NBA in the 1980’s.
“Ovechkin and Crosby are arguably the first true stars in NHL hockey. You have two guys that have entered the league at the same time. Gretzky was great but it wasn’t really until he ended up in LA that the U.S. started noticing. Now it doesn’t matter where I go you see Ovechkin, Crosby, and Malkin jerseys. The rivalry between Pittsburgh and Washington is great and the NHL could have never planned what happened last year between those teams and a seven game series,” said Button, who added that he was a little disappointed that the NHL Network was not on site to witness first hand that classic Stanley Cup Playoffs battle.
“It would have been nice if we covered it,” Button said, his voice trailing off.
It is still only October, but perhaps Button and hockey fans around the world will get the chance to see the most entertaining player in NHL history get another crack at the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins next spring? Stay tuned.