Tonight, at the centre of the biggest hockey game imaginable, we will marvel at the perfect Canadian hockey player.
His name is Alexander Ovechkin.
Don’t laugh; his story is drawn in our national colours.
It began with hardship. Ovechkin overcame scant resources as a child to play. His parents were going to pull him out of the sport until a coach, unwilling to see such a talent wilt, paid the kid’s way. He was hardened at 10 by the death of his brother in a car accident.
Ovechkin revels in his role as a hockey bad-ass. The missing front tooth is hockey’s badge of honour and none wear it more proudly.
Ovechkin’s seismic hit on Jaromir Jagr carried the Russians to a 4-2 win over the Czech Republic on Sunday but less visible was his spade work in the game’s final minute that led directly to the Russian insurance goal.
of course staggeringly talented. Only three players, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky scored 200 goals in four seasons or less. That’s pretty good company.
Ovechkin’s shopworn mug is the face of the sport. It graces video games and hockey mags and of course highlight packages. When he devastated the 38-year-old Jagr the young, Ovechkin is just 24, had thrown down the old and hockey’s law of the jungle was once again served.
And now Ovechkin, even more than Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin and lights out goalie Evgeni Nabokov leads a hard-skating, steeled team into a hostile rink. Sound familiar? It should. This is 1972 all over again except we are them and they are us.
Team Canada has plenty of grit, but Ovechkin’s over-the-top physical play makes the Russians more intimidating. Jagr will attest to that.
Ours is the shinier collection of offensive stars. The Russians have been every bit as hard-working, probably more.
The notion of a hockey melting pot is so obvious as to wreak of cliché, a Russian defenceman is not necessarily soft. If that notion hadn’t died by 1996, it was put to rest in that year’s playoff with Vladimir Konstantinov crushing open-ice blow to Claude Lemieux.
But true to their country’s artistic soul, Russian players have, as Pat Quinn used to say, been more apt to paint pictures than houses. Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure were as much stylists as goal-scorers. Their skill sets seem fueled more by an internal ascetic than a prairie boy’s hunger to win.
Russian players dot NHL rosters usually as offensive specialists of varying success. Maxim Afinogenov plays the same game as did Mogilny. It’s just that Mogilny played it a whole lot better.
We in Canada hold to the idea of our exceptionality in just one thing: hockey. Given equal talent, and I still hand Team Canada a slight edge in sheer ability, we believe something in our Canadian DNA will pull us through even if the Olympics in Turin and this year’s World Juniors stretch that idea to the limit.
You can’t want it more than Alexander Ovechkin wants it. You can’t be more hard-wired for success or more gifted with the tools to find that success.
This does not guarantee a Russian success, far from it. But Alexander Ovechkin has married out ethos and his skill and made himself the best player on the planet. Tonight, if we are to say that about our team, we will have to return the favour.