After he’d knocked out the Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov during last year’s playoffs, there was a broad expectation that Alex Ovechkin ought to apologize.
Svechnikov is a lot younger, a lot smaller and a whole lot less of a pugilist than Ovechkin. The fight looked unfair, and ended gruesomely.
Aside from saying he hoped Svechnikov was okay (he wasn’t), Ovechkin didn’t bother pretending to be sorry.
“I’m not a big fighter and he’s the same way,” Ovechkin said. “He asked me to fight and I said, ‘Let’s go, yeah.’ ”
Ovechkin isn’t above criticism. He’s immune to it.
The NHL has gotten to the point where people now cluck their tongues publicly about such things – “barbarism” – and then say a silent prayer that their team acquires a 50-goal scorer who is capable of such things. To varying degrees, the war over fighting has turned every NHL fan into a hypocrite.
But you would be truly hard pressed to find anyone who would say, “Of course I’d like Ovechkin. But only if he promises not to be mean to the other players.”
Ovechkin’s meanness is an important aspect of his greatness. He is a by-any-means-necessary person. He doesn’t want to hurt you, but, hey, you were standing there. In his way. So what did you expect?
In Toronto, people are hoping Auston Matthews is an in-utero Ovechkin. Both players are defensive liabilities. Both are generational goal-scoring talents.
They’re about the same size, though Ovechkin has the gnarled, dangerous presentation of a man who is combat fit, rather than just gym fit. He’s gone grey and refuses to get his teeth fixed. His nose looks like it hasn’t just been broken several times, but flattened with a frying pan.
At 34, the most famous Russian NHLer of all time looks like our collective ideal of the perfect Canadian hockey player circa 1972. Matthews does not look like that sort of player, and he doesn’t play like one either. But maybe he could think more like one.
It’s natural to ask Ovechkin how Matthews might be informed that there are three zones in a hockey rink, and one is occasionally allowed to try hard in all of them.
Ovechkin had just settled himself in his locker. He wondered whether it was better to sit or stand up in order to address the crowd.
Whatever you want, someone said.
“Thank you, guys, thank you,” Ovechkin said. “Old body.”
His hands were covered in ugly bruises. He has the tendency to wrap his arms tightly around himself as he talks, a very Slavic pose of concentration. Unlike so many other NHLers, he never seems bored.
What should Matthews do?
“He should call Dale Hunter and ask him advice,” Ovechkin said, referring to a former Capitals head coach with whom he had what we might call artistic differences.
Hunter wanted Ovechkin to backcheck more. Ovechkin preferred not to backcheck. So Hunter often sat Ovechkin, which led more or less directly to the coach getting fired.
But Ovechkin did eventually learn to incorporate some elements of the grind in his game. Not many, but a few.
“I improve myself a lot on defensive side of the ice,” Ovechkin said. “Of course, sometimes you make mistakes.”
That is putting it mildly. There are narcoleptics who take more mid-shift naps than Ovechkin.
What’s really changed about his game? He won a Stanley Cup.
Once he’d done that, all the criticisms of Ovechkin became pointless. You can’t nitpick a champion.
Matthews & Co. still haven’t won a playoff round. They’re fair game and will remain so until they do. The Leafs will end October with no better than a .500 record. If the buzzards are not exactly circling on the season, they have at least been thinking about getting some exercise.
This is where the blowback on Matthews’s off-season curriculars begins to show. He’s primed himself to be a target.
“No one’s a harder critic of Auston Matthews than Auston Matthews,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said in the midst of a larger defence of his player on Tuesday. “Does that make any sense?”
No. Not really.
Lots of people are critics of Matthews right now. That’s why the coach feels the need to brush them back.
Even Ovechkin is a critic, though his insults come wrapped in several layers of compliments.
After waxing on for a while about how great Matthews is and how talented the Leafs are, Ovechkin said, “It’s up to them how they want to do it. If they want to play for themselves or if they want to win a Stanley Cup, they have to play differently.”
Since Ovechkin is one of the very few NHLers who speaks his true mind in public, this suggests a larger narrative is taking hold in the league. That the Leafs are very good and terminally soft.
They may beat you in the regular season, but no one fears them once it matters.
It carries a little more heft coming from Ovechkin. Few players in history have heard that critique more consistently.
Like Matthews, Ovechkin is not his own hardest critic. The Russian has always seemed totally in love with himself.
What Ovechkin learned was to change just a little, but to do so without compromising himself. He is still a nasty sort, a me-first guy, a bit of a malfunctioning megaphone and someone who picks his spots when it comes to maximum effort.
If Washington hadn’t won a Cup, we’d still be talking about what a disappointment his career has been. But he did. So now we talk about him like he’s a walking, talking life lesson. He’s even learned to talk about himself that way.
But he isn’t. Alex Ovechkin in 2019 isn’t a reformed figure. The difference between current Ovechkin and past Ovechkin is that he’s a winner now.
If Matthews et al. want to copy something about his game, that’s the thing they should be concentrating on.