It is rare to run into genuine emotion in a media scrum following an NHL morning skate.
Hockey players use clichés to avoid expressing strong feelings, or else they answer leading questions with misleading answers: “It’s not about me, it’s about the team,” or “I’m not the coach,”or “We’ll be okay if we just stick to our system.”
Yet there was Alexander Ovechkin on a bitterly cold Monday morning in Ottawa, looking as if tears were about to squeeze out of those pale blue eyes.
“It’s awful,” he said.
He was referring, obviously, to the morning news that, for the second day in a row, terrorists had struck in Russia – taking direct aim, surely, at the Sochi Winter Games that are just six weeks away.
This time it was a bus in Volgograd, a suicide bomber setting off a bomb that killed 14 innocent people. A day earlier, another bomb exploded at Volgograd’s main railway station, leaving at least 17 dead.
The message was clear: Volgograd is the gateway to the southern wedge of Russia that holds Sochi; the attacks follow threats by Islamist militants in the southern territories who have vowed to stop the Games if possible.
When Ovechkin heard the latest news, he was both saddened and angered. On the bus from the team hotel to the Canadian Tire Centre for an optional skate – as the team’s leading scorer, he could easily have skipped yet another dull encounter with the media – he talked about how upset he was to the
Washington Capitals’ director of communications Sergey Kocharov, and indicated he would be fine to talk politics and reality that day, along with the usual meaningless chatter concerning grown men playing a child’s game.
“It’s awful,” he told a hushed media gathering. “I don’t know what people doing that kind of stuff for. I feel so sorry about the families and the people who were there.
“When you hear this kind of situation happened, you think ‘Oh my God!’ You just feel bad. I don’t know how to say it, but just say ‘Why? Why you have to carry a bomb with you and push the button and destroy you and destroy everybody? If you want to do it, do it by yourself somewhere in a forest or in the mountains. Nobody is going to care about it. This is just stupid.’”
A hockey player commenting on world affairs might strike some as a bit much, but Ovechkin is much more than the star right winger of the Washington Capitals when he speaks of the Olympics.
It can be argued, indeed, that the best NHL players of the world might not even be headed for Sochi were it not for Ovechkin.
Following Vancouver – North American city, excellent time zone – the NHL was known to have gone cold on the league’s Olympic involvement, which began less than 16 years ago in Nagano. The NHL had next to no control and, just as significantly, was getting no Games-driven revenue to speak of. The team owners were reluctant to close up their buildings for two to three weeks, and there was a push to replace the Olympic involvement with a renewed World Cup, more under the league’s control and financially a windfall through the sale of broadcast rights, souvenirs and tickets at North American venues.
It was Ovechkin who stepped up for the fans and for those players who wished to go. As early as 2009, amid rumours that Vancouver would be the end of the NHL’s Olympic commitment, the player who stood – and stands again today – with Crosby as the face of the NHL, was speaking out.
“I will be there,” he told the website russiatoday.com.
“Even if that means you leaving the NHL?” he was asked.
He said he would if he had to. He would go if the NHL said he could not. He would still go even if his team, the Capitals, suspended him.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I’ll go play in the Olympic Games for my country. If someone says to me ‘You can’t play’ – see ya.”
The NHL elected to go to Sochi, though South Korea in 2018 remains to be decided. There is little doubt that Ovechkin’s resolve played a major factor in the league approving Sochi, where the travel is difficult and broadcast time zones are problematic for North American viewers.
This fall, he left Washington’s training camp to travel to Greece, where he became the first Russian “dignitary” to carry the Olympic torch. He was there when the torch was lit in the ruins of the 2,600-year-old Temple of Hera and he was the one who took the torch from Greece’s star alpine skier, 18-year-old Ioannis Antoniou, and, wearing a white warm-up suit, ran with it smiling and waving to the cheering crowds.
“So sick!!!!!!!” he tweeted as @Ovi8, “best moment in my life!!!:
So you can see what it means to him to be there, as well as what it means to him to hear that there are forces at work that would destroy not only his dream, but his country’s greater dream as well.
“I'm sure it’s the kind of situation when somebody maybe wants to make people afraid,” he said. “There’s some bad things out there, but I don’t think it’s going to happen at the Olympics because there’s going to be lots of security there.
“I’m sure the Russian government will do everything possible to protect the people and the athletes.”
And, he is asked at the end, presuming the Games do go on as planned, who he would pick to win the gold medal in men’s hockey.
Finally, a smile.
“Russia … I hope.”
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