Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New King of Hockey Crowned (1-26-09)

This is one in a series of "best of " posts that will run while I am in the hinterland of the American desert Southwest where Internet service is sporadic at best. Some are timely and some need to be taken in the context of the date of first publication. Enjoy and comment if you wish.

For several weeks I have been complaining that the NHL All Star game has lost its luster and was no longer relevant. After two days of viewing the Skills Competition and the All-Star game itself I still have mixed feelings about its relevance.

On the positive side, Commissioner Gary Bettman’s prayers were answered on Sunday. I doubt he could have written a better script with an overtime eleven all game that ended with the hometown hero scoring one shootout goal and the best player in the world scoring the other.

On the negative side, no matter how the game turned out, very few folks in the United States, especially casual fans, saw the game or even knew how to watch. On a non-NFL football Sunday in January, the game should have been front and center on NBC in the middle of the afternoon not buried on the Versus Network at an odd 5:00 Central start time.

The primary thing that I learned after two days is that the NHL has a new poster boy for the game of hockey. The league has tried for three and one-half years, with some success, to anoint Sidney Crosby as the face of the sport. On paper, he was a good choice being Canadian with a boyish charm that looks great on television. Playing for the Penguins, he has been schooled by Mario Lemeiux in how to “be the man”.

Marketing can only go so far. At some point pure skill and production will rise to the top. At this point, Crosby is no longer the best player on his own team having been supplanted by Evgeni Malkin. Additionally, for the second year in a row, Crosby was unable to compete in the all-star setting due to an injury. Sitting on the sideline is not something kings are supposed to do.

The true face of the game at this point has to be Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. He and Crosby both entered the league in 2005, after the lockout season. During their careers Ovechkin has more goals, more points and plays a more aggressive all round game. Last season, not only did Ovechkin far outdistance the rest of the league with 65 goals, he was ninth in the league with 220 hits, a category uncommon to most recent top level goal scorers.

The one final feather in Ovechkin’s cap is his magnetic, free for all personality. His “mini show” during Saturday’s skills competition was the only thing that saved the evening from being a complete dud. Granted, Zdeno Chara, broke the record for hardest shot but that is not what gets talked about at the water cooler.

Alexander Ovechkin had Russian rival Evgeni Malkin dress him in a wide-brimmed hat, with a mini Canadian flag flying to appease the fans, and Elvis like sunglasses. Malkin further anointed him as the king of cool by dusting him off and giving him a squirt of water. “Ovie” then took off with two sticks on a mission toward the goal. He tossed one stick, missed on his shot, then drilled the rebound through the goalie's five hole.

Long after the All-Star weekend has passed, the image of the young Russian, crowned with an everyman fishing hat and glasses, capturing the heart of the crowd will not soon fade. In one moment, the transformation occurred. Alexander Ovechkin went from being the world's best player to become the new King of Hockey.

Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass

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