On the night before the Men’s Olympic hockey tournament began, the NHL Network premiered Sid the Kid vs. Alexander the Great. The show was filmed documentary-style and featured surprisingly personal footage of both superstars as they prepared for their inevitable (or as it turned out, inevitabLOL) Olympic showdown.
As expected, there were the usual PR-lacquered platitudes and completely non-threatening jibes that Pittsburgh sports fans have become so accustomed to that the words barely even register anymore—ala elevator music. Titillating sound bites like, “He’s a great competitor” and “I won’t think twice about running him over.”
The real action was in the B-roll footage. While Sid the Kid’s idea of a good time seems to alternate seamlessly between playing hockey, talking about hockey and meticulously taping his hockey stick, Ovechkin is like Rasputin on Ice.
At various times in the show, Alexander the Great steals an equipment cart and drives it around the arena like a stuntman, sings in a rock band with Something About Mary hair, poses dourly for fashion shoots with similarly surly models, and acts out pretty much every single fantasy ever conceived by middle schoolers in the midst of a Mountain Dew binge.
In one clip, Ovechkin is on his way to the premier of his clothing line in a stretch Hummer limo accompanied by a crew of what can only be assumed are either American used car salesmen or Russian sports agents, as well as a bullpen of stunning, evenly-spaced blonde and brunette models. After witnessing the revelry, a Russian sports journalist asked Ovechkin which type he preferred.
“Redheads,” Ovechkin grinned.
The panache of this guy! Sometimes I half expect him to take the ice with a Winston dangling out of his mouth and a ditch-digger shovel for a stick like Cool Hand Luke. Then I remember that that’s exactly the way I’ve been manipulated to feel.
You see, it’s all part of the NHL’s narrative. The producers of the show even included a segment featuring a real, live Canadian Mountie endorsing Crosby as a wonderful role model for the youth of the country, like Sid was running for Mayor. Hell, the tag-line of the program, snarled ominously by a throaty, pack-a-day disembodied narrator was – “Pick a side: Who’s better? Who’s cooler? Who has the best shot at Olympic gold?”
It was all a big set up for the biggest heavyweight title fight since Hulk Hogan vs. The Macho Man at WrestleMania V.
Now all the hype seems kind of silly. Let’s review the fortunes of Alex Ovechkin and Sydney Crosby in the past two weeks: Ovechkin’s week peaked when he hit Jaromir Jagr so hard he made him sprout his old mullet, then the Russians flamed out in spectacular fashion to the Canadians 7-3, which culminated in Ovechkin smacking a video camera out of a female fan’s hands on his way out of Vancouver.
Crosby, just eight months removed from becoming a Pittsburgh legend, became a national hero by scoring an overtime Gold-medal-winning goal that will be recreated daily, around the clock, by every Canadian kid firing pucks at a net, garage door, or dryer from Vancouver to Newfoundland.
Despite Ovechkin’s awe-inspiring raw talent and unparalleled shooting power, the two superstars seem miles apart after this Olympiad. Even the Washington Capitals’ internet message board patrons are having an identity crisis, conceding that “Crosby is better than Ovechkin” (right now). How did this happen?
Pressure. During the Olympics, the sports media could barely get through a sentence without mentioning the word. How can Crosby be so unfathomably good in the face of it? How could such a powerful Russian team be so thoroughly dismantled? How could Ovechkin—seemingly the most fun-loving guy in sports—knock a fan to the ground in frustration without even a word?
It’s easy to just shrug and chalk it all up to the intangible nature of “pressure.” Some relish it; thrive off of it. Others grip their sticks a little tighter.
Just don’t go reveling in Ovechkin’s misery too heartily. There are two sides to every story. Just as Sid is often painted as a one-dimensional workaholic—which of course is largely fiction—we don’t always get to see the other side of his great rival either. Or perhaps in Pittsburgh, we choose not to see it.
Last summer, Ovechkin explained to Sovetsky Sport’s Pavel Lysenkov how much the Olympics meant to him by means of a simple story. According to Ovechkin, he was preparing to go sailing on teammate Alexander Semin’s yacht along the coast of Siberia when they made a quick stop for supplies in the middle of nowhere:
“So we stopped at this small village to go to the local store. And imagine that—we’re in the heart of Siberia in an ordinary store. There was this woman behind the counter cutting some fish. I came in and asked for water, chocolates and sandwiches. And she looked at me kind of strange and asked me: ‘Is it you or not?’ I replied: ‘Of course it’s me.’ She said: ‘Give me a smile.’”
The woman recognized Ovechkin by his trademark missing front tooth and freaked out. Ovechkin, too, was blown away by the power of the moment.
“But I couldn’t catch my breath there [in that store]. I just felt what Russia is about, how dear and big it is and how we—hockey players and the national team—are loved here. When you think of people like those you want to win the Olympics twice as much.”
Heavy stuff. Which is why Crosby’s coup de grâce in Sunday’s heart-stopping Gold medal game was so fascinating. It wasn’t very cerebral at all. It was automatic. Cold.
With the Gold medal, not to mention four years of anguish or euphoria on his stick, no. 87 buried the puck behind the sensational Ryan Miller without even thinking. He didn’t even look up at the net. Didn’t need to. He had already made the shot millions of times. Sunday was just the culmination of years of hard work in a cold, empty basement in Cole Harbor when the only one cheering the game winner was Crosby himself.
Would you even be surprised if Sid still goes home after real games and shoots pucks at Mario’s guest house garage? I wouldn’t.
Until Ovechkin learns to harness his off-ice swagger and bravado in the big moments, he will always be the one that kids imitate during breakaway contests, while Crosby’s name will be the one that rings through the streets and the basements and the empty arenas whenever kids across the world imagine that the game is on their sticks.
At just 22, Crosby casts an awfully big shadow over any NHL superstar.