Photo: Bruce Bennett
Monday was fun. All the Olympic hockey players arrived in Sochi, practiced with their teams, and posed for a billion photos. Alex Ovechkin, our namesake and inspiration, took up the leftmost spot on a very impressive line with Evgeni Malkin and Alex Semin for Team Russia, and everything was peachy. And yet I’m filled with dread about what’s coming.
A few dozen articles about the burden on Ovi and Russia’s inhuman expectations of success have done nothing to ease my nerves. I read Mike Wise unabashedly supporting Ovi because of all the pressure he faces. I read an AP item about how all of Mother Russia has pinned $50 billion (yeah right) on Alex’s wings. I read the L.A. Times congratulating Ovi for smiling despite the unspeakable tumult he’ll be feeling by Wednesday. I read The Globe and Mail describe Ovi as a “hero” and a “brand.” I saw bloggers and players predict gold for Russia in general and Olympic glory for Ovechkin in particular. Even Greenberg think they’ll get silver.
To hear the press say it, Ovechkin has never looked more serene, more confident, or more friendly– not like that sourpuss-loser-grump who blew us all off in Vancouver; no. That’s when it occurred to me: this is a whole lot of posturing for a guy who may have very little say in who wins gold. And if Russia doesn’t win gold, look out.
Like I said: Ovechkin-Malkin-Semin is a dominant line. Semin and Malkin are two of the best playmakers in the NHL, and Ovechkin is one of the greatest scorers of all time. But they’re just one line on a Russian team that really isn’t all that deep. If Pavel Datsyuk isn’t healthy enough to center Radulov and Kovalchuk, I worry that Russia will have just one complete, marquee scoring line. Canada and Sweden each tout at least three– and they’ve got more scoring to spare. And while the USA lacks in star power, they’ve also got more profundity among forwards than Russia.
Plus, consider who Ovi will be facing.
Canada’s top defensive pairing is Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Nashville’s Shea Weber. Those guys rank in the top 15 of total time on ice this season, and they’re very comfortable with the role of shutdown defense. The USA has a pretty tough-looking checking line comprised of Max Pacioretty, Ryan Callahan, and Paul Stastny as well as a D-pairing that knows Ovechkin pretty well: Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh and Ovi’s teammate John Carlson.
There is no player whose offense is more written about than Alex Ovechkin. The book is out, even if Ovi has been rewriting it since last year. So despite the dynamism of Malkin and Semin, Russia’s competition still has the will and wherewithal to give Ovechkin some grief in Sochi. Even on a double-wide ice surface. Even in front of a home crowd. Even if Ovechkin gets mountains of ice time.
Ovi is a once-in-a-generation player (okay, twice in-a-generation), and I am possessed with cosmic certitude that he will score a bunch in this tournament, but he’s not gonna win it on his own. The rest of his team, however flawed their roster and systems, are gonna have to contribute as well. Besides, these tiny tournaments come down to goaltending more often than not, and I can’t help but think that– despite all this pressure– Russia’s medal status is largely out of Ovi’s hands.
Not completely, obviously, but certainly more than the predominant narrative would have us think. This “he carries the fate of his nation on his back” and “he is the face of Russia” stuff is really dangerous. Not, like, actually dangerous, but it’s definitely the setup for a bunch of hitpieces to come.
For reference: Damien Cox [turns around three times, spits] said Ovi was “bouncy” and “charismatic” in Vancouver before he stopped being his “swaggering self on the divided team.”
Should things not go as planned for Russia, I’m sure we’ll see some somber stories mourning a country’s hope and describing in excruciating detail its disappointment in its star. We’ll see needlessly castigatory columns– probably coming out of Canada– punishing the preening foreigner for being a rock star instead of a good Canadian boy.
Maybe that won’t happen. Maybe Ovi can shake off Keith and Weber, grind down Patches and Callahan, and put a hat trick on Lundqvist (and then lose gold to the US anyway). But with the stakes so absurdly high, it’s hard to see any outcome that doesn’t involve Milbury, Roenick, Cox, Cherry, Engblom, Wilbon, Kornheiser, Crawford, Melrose et al. wringing their hands and sharpening their teeth.
It’s possible I’m being unfairly pessimistic. It’s great that Ovi’s a big deal, and that he’s enjoying it, and that the press loves him– even if it’s temporary. But I know hockey can be mean. The competition in this tournament is ludicrously tough, and no player in the world is better scouted-against than Alex Ovechkin. I know hockey is fickle. Even if he puts eight shots on goal in every game, Ovi might run into a hot goalie anyway. And I know hockey is stupid. Ovechkin could be the tournament’s top scorer, but if Russia doesn’t medal, I’ll doubt we’ll hear the nuance of that effort on NBC Sports in March.
I’m beginning to notice that my years following and writing about hockey have made me cynical in ways I’d rather not be. When the guys are on the ice, I’ll be the happiest hockey fan in the world– just like you. But all this noise around it– the studio segments, the human-interest preambles, the stake-building, the emotional investment in a personality that’s at least partially a performance– it’s not getting me excited. It’s just filling me with dread and anguish.
Someone drop the damn puck already.