The problem is...
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The date was April 19th. The year, perfectly enough, '99. The image is a hockey classic, not unlike Bobby Orr flying through the air, Patrick Roy throwing his hands up in surrender, or Brett Hull skating in the blue paint. A helmet-less Wayne Gretzky skating off the ice, waiving to the people who supported, loved, and rooted for him in a career that ranks among the most successful in the entire history of professional sports. Though hockey's golden era was, almost inarguably, already dead and gone by 1999, the image of the Great One skating off the ice for the last time truly served to hammer the final nail into its coffin.
Since that moment, the National Hockey League has been steadily dwindling in the eyes of the casual sports fan. What once was a proud sport has become little more than a punch line. As hardcore hockey fans, we tend to ignore the jokes, the hatred toward the game that we know, love, and have loved all our lives. It's almost like the best kept secret in the world, the game of hockey. It's more violent than football, it's faster than basketball, and there is considerably less scratching of the male genitalia than in baseball. We know that, we appreciate that, and at the end of the day, we go to sleep sure in the knowledge that the good old hockey game is the best game you can name. But why should we, as hockey fans, settle for obscurity when we all know there could be so much more? Far be it for a 20 year old kid from Sudbury, Ontario to make sweeping statements about North American culture, but I think it's pretty safe to say that if the only time your sport gets major mainstream coverage is during emergencies (such as the Richard Zednik incident), or embarrassments (the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident), something is drastically wrong with it's perception. Especially when anybody who has played or watched the game with any regularity can tell you how amazing it truly is.
However, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, nine years removed from Gretzky's last game, we have been blessed anew by the gods of hockey. Finally, there seems to be a superstar worthy of picking up where Wayne left off. Not just as the most talented player in the world, but as an ambassador for the National Hockey League and the sport of hockey in general. Not just as the league's leading scorer, but as somebody whose skill and enthusiasm extends far past the actual ice rink, as somebody who doesn't have to do anything to sell tickets except show up and play his game, his way. We have that wunderkind again, finally. He's engaging, he's funny, he's "new school" in his attitudes toward the game, and he's fiercely competitive. The problem is, he's not the All-American boy next door we were all banking on.
With all due respect to Sidney Crosby, who really is much more than just a "good" player, if the National Hockey League ever wants to return to relevance on the world scale, they have got to recognize that Alexander Ovechkin is the person to bring them there.
First and foremost, what sets Alex apart from Sid and the pack is his personality. Again, this in no way is to paint Sidney Crosby as anything less than the consummate professional. However, the fact of the matter is that a professional is *all* that Sidney Crosby is. He always says and does the right thing as it has been defined by hockey traditionalists. He takes no risks; there is no flash, no sizzle to Sid. It's as if Sidney Crosby is reading how to handle his career, step-by-step, from a textbook. This is not by any means a negative thing. However, it is miles away from what the NHL needs at this point. The league doesn't need another humble, quiet type; it needs a star, a flamboyant entity, on and off the ice. Alexander Ovechkin is that person. This is a player who, in his rookie season, scoffed at a reporter who asked if he was jealous that Crosby got to play with Mario Lemieux, because (and I'm paraphrasing) "I don't need Mario, I've got Matt Pettinger". This is a player who wasn't afraid to fail spectacularly in the NHL's Dunk-Contest-Shootout, but more importantly, the only one with the guts to try something worthy of Sportscenter. This is a player who, criticism be damned, called Cristobal Huet the top goaltender in the entire NHL when Washington stole him from the Montreal Canadiens for Anaheim's second round pick in 2009 at this year's trade deadline. How refreshing is it to see a National Hockey League player stand up and say whatever he believes, no matter how outlandish it may seem? If you love him, that's great. If you don't like him, that's fine. He's going to be the same person no matter what the place, time of day, planet, temperature, playoff round or season. Alex Ovechkin, at the end of the day, is Alex Ovechkin. And that is more than you can say about any other player in the NHL's upper echelon.
Which brings me to my next point -- to be the king of the game, a player needs be in that elite level. They need to score, score often, and score beautifully. I mean, Wade Belak can give you one hell of a sound byte, but nobody ever accused him of being the game's savior. Ovechkin, at the time of this article, has 54 goals and 92 points, both of which lead the entire NHL. Alexander the Great needs only 6 goals in Washington's final 14 games to hit the illustrious 60 goal plateau, a mark that hasn't been hit since 1995, and seemed virtually unreachable no more than four years ago, when 41 goals gave Iginla, Kovalchuk and Nash a share of the Rocket Richard trophy. Ovechkin also has, under his belt, what could be considered not only the goal of the decade, but maybe the nicest goal in the last 25 years of professional hockey. You already know what I'm referring to, and if you don't, please, stop reading this right now, open youtube, and type "Ovechkin's incredible goal" into the search engine. Has Crosby done anything like that? Kovalchuk? Iginla?
Alexander Ovechkin is everything, absolutely everything, that the National Hockey League needs right now. He scores. He hits. He speaks his mind. He laughs. He wins. He competes every single night (and this year, he's competing on both sides of the ice, going from -19 to +17). Why this kid isn't absolutely all over the place is something I just do not understand. He has got a sense of vigor and a passion for hockey that seems to be damn infectious. The NHL should have him on every talk show, on every sports highlight package, hell, on every street corner in every small market city in the United States, spreading the wonderful virus that is the love of the game. But for some reason, a reason that is totally and completely unbeknownst to me, Sid the Kid gets the title of "the Next One".
I am a hardcore hockey fan. No matter what happens, I always will be. I was there when McSorely slashed Brashear, I was there when Canada lost two franchises, I was there when the dreaded Trap slowed the game to a crawl. I'll stick with this game through anything. But it's simple human nature: when you see true beauty in the world, you want to share it with others, lest you risk wasting it. Make no mistake, the game of hockey, and more specifically, the brand of hockey that Alex plays, is truly beautiful. And through its total and complete lack of appreciation, it is being wasted.
Alex is putting himself out there. It's up to the NHL to bring him to you.
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