One-of-a-kind hockey analysis usually doesn’t come from a dude in cut-off sweatpants and a girl wearing Jimmy Choo flip flops. But on Saturday night, after the Penguins shocked the Capitals 4-3 in overtime, a pair of unlikely experts blew my mind.
While flipping through the channels with my girlfriend, I stumbled upon Alexander Ovechkin’s post-game interview. I tried to explain to her that the Pens had just won a pivotal Game 5 in overtime, and that’s why hours earlier I was jumping around the apartment and screaming through the halls like the guys in that Heineken commercial. She just stared vacantly at the screen and begged me to put Animal Planet back on.
A bulldog on a skateboard? I’m in!
But just as I was about to flip back to the laugh-a-minute riot of Planet’s Funniest Animals, she said something profound: “Awe, he looks sad.”
On the television, Ovechkin was mumbling softly to reporters, his thousand-mile stare transfixed on the podium in front of him. He looked exhausted. His Cheshire cat grin and trademark tongue-in-cheek comments were nowhere to be found. He was utterly swagger-less and deflated. As reporters asked question after question – about his rookie goaltender’s lackluster performance to the team’s defensive lapses – Alexander the Great never looked up.
“He’s not sad,” I said. “He’s just really tired. His team lost in back-to-back games.”
“No, seriously,” she insisted. “He looks depressed.”
When Ovechkin finished another deadpan answer about the series’ dramatic momentum swing, there was silence. The hockey writers were out of questions, but instead of looking up or storming off before a reporter could think of more quote-bait, the league’s probable Most Valuable Player just sat there, shoulders slumping, engaged in the world’s longest staring contest with a press podium.
Alexander the Great looked like someone had stolen his lunch money.
“See?” my girlfriend said. “He looks like he’s about to cry.”
I wasn’t convinced. I grew up playing the game. Hockey players spend most of their young playing careers getting dressed in sub-zero lockers rooms the size of meat lockers. I knew kids who kept lost teeth in rolled-up socks in their hockey bags for posterity, and who treated bruises as badges of honor. Scars are like tattoos in the hockey world.
No. There was no way Ovechkin was sad. Demoralized from his team’s third straight loss, maybe. But not sad. After all, this is the petulant, bearded Russian who jumps into the glass at full speed during goal celebrations. This is the man who got up and continued his shift after a missed hit on Brooks Orpik caused him to half-gainer through the air. This is the league’s most dominant offensive force we’re talking about here.
He couldn’t be crumbling, could he? Nah. I flipped the channel.
Admit it, tough guy: You can’t turn it off.
Then about half an hour later, with the world’s funniest animals in full swing, one of my roommates burst into the room. He was wearing cut-off sweats and brandishing a bag of Doritos.
“Dude,” he said. Then he held his pointer finger in the air while he finished chomping away. “Did you see Ovechkin after the game? He looked depressed.”
My girlfriend snapped out of her perma-smile puppy binge and perked up. She gave me the look. The see I told you look.
My roommate set down his Doritos and began to explain his theory that Ovechkin is sad because he accidentally injured Sergei Gonchar on a borderline illegal knee-to-knee hit and may have knocked him out of the playoffs.
Ovechkin has a history of headhunting. Last season, he tried to take Evgeni Malkin’s head clean off, but whiffed. Other players, like Gonchar, haven’t been so lucky. However, there is a big difference between trying to hurt another player and injuring them permanently – especially if the other player is a fellow Russian.
Russian-born NHLers are a famously inclusive family. Often, veteran Russian players will take in newly imported stars and let them live in their homes – like the Gonchar family did for Malkin when he arrived in Pittsburgh from Magnitogorsk. Geno was able to study up on his English by watching American cartoons with the Gonchars’ young daughter, and he enjoyed the familiar comfort of Mrs. Gonchar’s Russian soup before games.
Malkin didn’t even pay rent.
The roots of the Russian extended family run deep throughout the NHL. While they may appear to be sworn enemies on the ice, Gonchar and Ovechkin are good friends off of it – even playing golf together in the summer.
As Gonchar was writhing in pain on the ice, Ovechkin reportedly tried to explain to Penguins players that he wasn’t trying to hurt him.
Ever since the hit, Ovechkin seems to have lost some of his bite. His physical presence disappeared in Game 5, and he was on the receiving end of some punishment from Matt Cooke and Jordan Staal.
Under the pressure of being his team’s only legitimate scoring threat (Semin has been deplorable, Backstrom pass-happy, Federov ineffective), and the shame of injuring his friend and fellow Russian, is Ovechkin buckling?
If this blog had a thesis statement – it would be this: There is more to the game than the game itself.
Hockey is as much of a culture, and an extended family, as it is a sport. Call me crazy, but when Ovechkin gave his bleary-eyed post-game interview, he looked like a defeated man. Less than one week after the Capitals celebrated a 2-0 series lead by pig-piling on one another in front of their raucous home crowd, Ovechkin and company might be joining Mike Richards’ Philadelphia Flyers on the links.
Once again, welcome to the NHL playoffs.
Enjoy Game 6, everyone.
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