Skip to main content
opinion

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin celebrates his second goal against the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

A U.S. insurance company you’ve never heard of decided to make a nonsense commercial starring the only interesting person who plays hockey for a living in the NHL.

The subject: Alex Ovechkin’s life-insurance policy.

The characters: Ovechkin, Mrs. Ovechkin and Ovechkin’s Washington linemate, Nicklas Backstrom.

The setting: The Ovechkin family living room

The complication: Backstrom is the beneficiary on the policy

The punchline: “We are duo. If something happen to me, who is Backy gonna pass the puck to?”

I’ll give points for bravery to whatever ad exec greenlit this spot because it presumes a bunch of things I’m not sure it should. First, that the average American viewer has any idea who these people are; next, that they can muddle through Ovechkin’s mush-mouthed accent; and third, that they know what a “power-play point” is.

Presumably, that risk was taken because even while he’s lying on the couch in his togs slurping cereal, Ovechkin has more charisma than the rest of the dues-paying NHLPA combined.

Now 17 years into his career, Ovechkin is back in the news because he’s record-hunting again. He scored a couple on Wednesday night. That moved him past the ill-fated Marcel Dionne to become the fifth leading goal scorer in history.

It’s the sort of thing they celebrate in hockey because hockey has a poor grasp on what it’s supposed to be celebrating. It’s great and all, but “We’re No. 5!” is not a thing people chant.

As of Friday afternoon, Ovechkin stood on 732 goals. By the end of this season, he will pass Brett Hull (741) and Jaromir Jagr (766) to reach third on the list. Gordie Howe’s 801 goals is in sight by next season. At his current rate of production, Ovechkin, 36, will probably have to play into his 40s to touch Wayne Gretzky’s mark of 894 goals.

Are you still awake? Did you manage to get through that blizzard of numbers without tipping over at your table/desk/seat on the bus? I wrote it, and after finishing I woke up on the kitchen floor.

Statistics. That’s what hockey has turned Ovechkin into. He’s scored at this rate versus this other guy scoring at this other rate, but what about that rate, and, honestly, who cares? Who do these people think they are – baseball? Hockey stats vs. baseball stats. That’s a knife-to-a-gun-fight situation.

Ovechkin’s appeal was never about his place in the Great Tabulations of the sport. It was visceral. It was that broken leer and the fact that, every once in a while, he would do unpredictable violence to someone stupid enough to go looking for it. It was a guy who not only could say or do anything, but would happily do it and on the regs.

They even gave him a human paint swatch for comparison – Ovechkin was a day-glo rainbow and Sidney Crosby was taupe. That should have been the best Mutt-and-Jeff routine in sports, but somehow the NHL contrived to make it boring as well. What should have been about contrasting personalities from opposite ends of the Earth became a numbers calculation. Which of Crosby/Ovechkin has more goals/points/Cups/gold medals? They declared a winner a while back and moved on to more numbers, while the pair continued to dominate the game.

Ovechkin is proof of hockey’s most dangerous blind spot, the thing that keeps the league trapped at No. 4 in North American popularity and with soccer gaining fast. People watch sports for stories. Leagues that are best able to tell those stories enjoy the most success.

The NHL is terrible at telling stories because it has a terminal fear of being interesting. In hockey argot, “interesting” sounds too much like “me first.”

In his six years, what’s the thing Connor McDavid has said or done off-ice that really made an impression on you? What do you know about him besides the fact that he loves hockey and has a cute dog? I rest my case.

Ovechkin touched down into this arid narrative landscape like a visitor sent from Planet Fascination. This is a guy who, as a grade-schooler, played in a youth hockey game the day after his older brother died. Lots of Ovechkin’s stories are like that – compellingly human – and he likes telling them.

But as soon as he started banging on about his love for Vladimir Putin, the league’s focus swung away from him so fast it was vertigo-inducing.

This is something other leagues understand that the NHL does not – interesting things are not necessarily popular things, and that it is foolish to suppress the former if it is not the latter. People don’t need their athletes to be smart, or politically right-thinking, or even all that likeable. They just need them to be interesting. That is the secret sauce leagues such as the NFL and NBA understand, and the NHL and MLB do not.

Ovechkin was the only NHLer of his generation who hit the two highest bars for any wannabe superstar – be an all-time talent, and consistently say/do fascinating, newsworthy things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with your job.

When Ovechkin’s gone, we won’t remember the goals. Nobody ever does. Mike Gartner is eighth on that career goals list. What do you remember about Mike Gartner? The moustache. I’m betting it’s the moustache.

What you’ll remember about Ovechkin is his weird relationship with his parents, his bibulous post-Stanley Cup tour of the United States and “Russian machine never breaks.” It’s the way he went grey in his early 30s and didn’t get his teeth fixed. I suspect that when most Canadians hear the word “Russian,” the mental picture that pops into their head is Ovechkin’s gap-toothed grin. He became a whole country in another country’s mind.

Given this garish promotional gift, the NHL spent the better part of 20 years – in particular, the last half – trying to cover him up.

The league still hasn’t figured out what to do with Ovechkin. When that insurance ad made a splash, NHL.com did a story on it.

The story should have been “Why is some random insurance company doing a better job of promoting our biggest international star than we ever have?”

Instead, it was headlined: “Ovechkin, wife Nastya, Backstrom star in funny new commercial.”

Fascinating. Really, really fas … sorry, I passed out again.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct