Alexander Ovechkin Celebration Sparks Question: Are 'Purists' Bad For NHL?

Derek ScarlinoCorrespondent IMarch 25, 2009

The time has finally come.

Alexander Ovechkin’s sometimes outrageous goal celebrations have become the talk of the hockey world.

Does he go overboard? Is he too showy? Aren’t hockey players supposed to be humble?

Is it time to allow the NHL to be exciting?

If the Don Cherrys, Sidney Crosbys, and, as of late, the Rick Tocchets were in charge, we’d probably see something go into effect that is institutionalized in the NFL (No Fun League) wherein players face fines for exuberance, or "over"-celebrating. 

Cherry is concerned that he's going to become a "goofy soccer guy".  Last time I checked, Don, soccer was the most popular sport in the world.

Perhaps the question should be asked—should we really be concerned with how athletes who have earned a right to show their skills on the biggest respective stages of sport celebrate their accomplishments?  Did anyone rag on Ozzie Smith for his backflips?  Hell, if I were a professional athlete making millions, dating beautiful women, and playing my favorite game for a career I'd be doing backflips too!

The thing is, from my perspective, the NHL needs a player like Ovechkin. The guy is singlehandedly saving the NHL in its post-lockout years. He’s got the skills, he’s a prolific scorer, he throws big hits, and he gets excited about it. How can this be bad for the NHL?

This guy, alone, has created a hockey market in Maryland and Virginia. Maryland and Virginia? Yes!

However, for all the fans he makes south of the Mason-Dixon, so-called hockey "purists" are alienated by his showy celebrations after netting goals. Why? How do all of he other sports market themselves? With slam-dunk contests and home-run derbies, that’s how. Hell, even the McDonald’s All Star High School team has a slam dunk contest.

The most successful leagues get behind the faces of their most popular players—something that the marketing phenoms of the NHL need to take some serious notes on.

It’s obvious that the NHL wants to make Sidney Crosby its poster boy—but hey, Sid the Kid is being eclipsed by Ovechkin. Ovechkin is a show from head to toe. He’s exciting to watch. He’s not a pretty boy, and he isn’t used to reinforce Canadian hockey traditions.

The fact that Ovechkin is becoming the face of the NHL on his own terms rather than the efforts of the NHL's marketing people goes to show that, just maybe, Americans and Europeans alike are not all that well enamoured with Sidney Crosby's "good Canadian boy" image or story.   

The problem is, to Americans, Sidney just isn’t exciting in that respect. He’s an amazing player, and worth every comment he gets, but he also has a dark side—a whiny side. A cheap-shot side that sees him aiming below the belt in scrums, and jumping non-fighters off of faceoffs. 

If he keeps feuding with Russian players (Kovalchuk, Semin, and Ovechkin) he might just alienate super teammate Evgeni Malkin.

Don Cherry is a whole other animal. He praises Ovechkin’s perceived “selfishness” because that’s how you score goals and take charge of your team when they need it. He likes Ovechkin, but his specific criticisms of Ovechkin’s game are fading away in the context of hockey relevancy.

If Ovechkin were giving boastful quotes to the media throngs, and avoiding physical play, and cheapshotting other players, then Cherry would have ample reason to be irked at the Russian superstar. The thing is, he doesn’t. Ovechkin gets his nose dirty like the “good Canadian boys” showcased on Coach’s Corner every Saturday night. This is something that old Grapes gripes about other European players not doing.

If you want evidence of Ovechkin’s grit, just YouTube the Capitals–Canadiens game from last January when Ovechkin was run by almost everyone wearing a Canadiens jersey, took a stick to the mouth, lost teeth, and still scored four goals while dishing out physical abuse of his own to win the game. That’s about as gritty as it gets.

What has to be accepted by the purists is that the Russian game isexciting, very exciting. Russians are known for speed, stickhandling prowess, and owning great shots.

If these purists had their way, the NHL would die a quicker death than the one that the league is trying to stave off right now.

Aside from “overkill” celebrations, what doesn’t belong in hockey are feelings of nationalism and xenophobia. Every other professional sports league openly welcomes diversity in their athletes and playing styles.  Why not the mouths involved with the NHL (ahem, Don Cherry)?

What would the NHL be without Ovechkin-type players? Boring. It seems that it has always been the way of the NHL to focus their energies on one player—Howe, Gretzky, and now Crosby. I was too young to understand the levels of skill that made Gretzky and Lemieux the one-one punch that they really were when they were in the NHL simultaneously, but the NHL ran with the image of Gretzky.

Don’t fans of the NHL want the spotlight on their sport of choice? How will this be accomplished if Sidney Crosby is the only one on SportsCenter night after night? Answer: it won’t! Period.

You want parity when it comes to superstars. Again, look at the NBA, look at the NFL, and look at the MLB. For anyone who says that hockey should be “true” to itself, if it went your way there wouldn’t be an NHL. Being true to something sometimes isn’t the same as being “honest”, and this is a prime example.

As the naysayers have gotten their licks in, Ovechkin is not without his in-league defenders.  Well-respected Canadiens pugilist Georges Laraque had the following to say about Ovechkin's much-talked about 50th goal celebration,

"I thought it was awesome.  He's the best player in the world, the most entertaining player the NHL ever had—and it's not like it was his 20th goal, it was his 50th goal."

Case in point. It was his 50th goal. 

Retired NHLer and legendary fighter Dave "Tiger" Williams said of Cherry's comments, "If Alex were born in Winnipeg, he would have nothing to say."  And you can undoubtedly bet that there's truth in that too. 

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson has also come to Ovechkin's defense:

"...Seeing how excited he is when he scores, I think we need more people like that. Just the exuberance. He looks like he loves what he's doing. I think that's very important and we need more players like that."

As for the man of the hour himself, Ovechkin isn't worried at all about those who attempt to detract from his flashy play. 

"It's good for our league, it's good for our fans," Ovechkin said. "Some players are just like robots. They score goals and it's like OK, no emotion, nothing...If you're an emotional guy, show it.

"You don't have to think about if somebody doesn't like it...I play myself, I enjoy my life, I've enjoyed my whole career. If somebody (doesn't) like it, don't watch my game, don't watch what I'm doing on the ice."

And that's basically what it comes down to.  If Ovechkin was potting 25-30 goals a season, then maybe the celebrations would be a bit much, however, if the league's most prolific scorer in a decade wants to celebrate 50 goals, or 65 goals, let him do it.

Hockey needs it.


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