How Will Intense Pressure in Sochi Affect Alex Ovechkin?

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How Will Intense Pressure in Sochi Affect Alex Ovechkin?
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Alex Ovechkin will be under pressure of Olympic proportions at Sochi 2014. 

First and foremost, Ovechkin will be expected to play exceptional hockey. The Washington Capitals captain is very capable of doing this, as he currently leads the NHL with 40 goals and 15 power-play goals, while also leading the league with 298 shots

Ovechkin has established a good track record in his Olympic career as well, scoring seven goals in 12 games on 49 shots over two Olympics. His performance recently earned him a place among the greatest Olympians in Washington Capitals history

Unfortunately, this single mindedness is not without criticism. 

During intermission of the NBC Sports broadcast of the Capitals game with the New York Islanders on Feb. 4, Mike Milbury said of Ovechkin: “He’s just a one-dimensional player. He scores goals,” per Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post

Yes, he scores goals. At a prodigious rate, unmatched by any of his contemporaries and not eclipsed by many other goal scorers in the NHL's long and storied history. To be precise, Ovechkin paces the active leaders in goals per game average and is fifth among the career leaders in that category, according to Hockey-Reference.com. 

And yet, he is still criticized.

Thus, the pressure mounts. 

Additionally, Ovechkin is expected to play a leadership role for Team Russia. He was named an alternate captain and not the team's full captain—a fate he willingly accepted according to an article published by The Globe and Mail on Jan. 15:  

Alex Ovechkin was the first Russian athlete to carry the Olympic torch, but Pavel Datsyuk will be Russia’s captain in Sochi. With the support of Ovechkin, Datsyuk was named captain of the Russian men’s hockey team on Wednesday as the 35-year-old Detroit Red Wings centre prepares to participate in his fourth Olympics...Ovechkin, last year’s Hart Trophy-winner as NHL MVP, is considered the face of next month’s Sochi Olympics. He is the only Russian-born captain in the NHL but told reporters at Washington Capitals practice last week that he thought Datsyuk should have that role in Sochi. “To be honest with you, that kind of type of player, he has respect on the ice and off the ice,” Ovechkin said. “My opinion is who (should) be captain is Datsyuk.” 

Each time they step on the ice, Ovechkin, Datsyuk and the rest of Team Russia will feel the weight of a pressure that is both unique and non-negotiable. On Feb. 6, Helene Elliott of The Los Angeles Times wrote: "Whether the Washington Capitals winger and his teammates will win the last event — the men's gold medal hockey game on Feb. 23 — will heavily influence whether Russia will consider these Games a success." 

That is a heavy burden to bear. Even fellow Russian Igor Larionov, himself a three-time Olympian and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, touched on this phenomenon when he recently spoke to Greg Beacham of The Aspen Times. Larionov said: “When you’ve got great players like (Evgeni) Malkin, (Pavel) Datsyuk and Ovechkin, everybody thinks they’re going to carry them to the gold medal. It will be interesting to see how they handle the pressure.” 

But there is still more reason for Ovechkin to be concerned. 

As alluded to earlier, Ovechkin can be considered the face of the games from the Russian perspective. In addition to being an official ambassador of the games, Ovechkin was the first Russian torchbearer of the Olympic flame, picking it up in Olympia, Greece. 

Ovechkin has taken this role very seriously. In so doing, he may have taken on more responsibility—and therefore, more pressure—than a world-class athlete should take on while trying to win a hockey tournament. 

You see, the Sochi Games have had many issues and problems, detailed in total by The Washington Post on Feb. 6. Ovechkin—equal parts ambassador, diplomat and politician—offered his rebuttal to a pool of reporters after the Capitals' practice the very next day: 

I’ve been in three Olympic games. I remember Turin [in 2006] and Vancouver [in 2010] and nobody said something bad about Vancouver and Turin. Why you guys always try to find some bad things in Sochi? It’s Olympics, guys, come on. Everybody has to [enjoy it] and don’t find bad stuff out there. Everything in Turin was where the construction was and nobody said [anything] about that. Of course world is changing, everybody is focusing on different stuff, political stuff, but just settle down. 

To overcome all of these pressures, Ovechkin will need a heroic performance. In fact, he will need a Herculean effort. 

Aside from the effort he puts forth, a further comparison between Ovechkin and Hercules (or Heracles) is not completely unfounded. Just read this description of the hero of Greek mythology, courtesy of The Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University

Hercules was both the most famous hero of ancient times and the most beloved. More stories were told about him than any other hero. Hercules was worshipped in many temples all over Greece and Rome.

The parallels are obvious. One can reasonably assert that Ovechkin is the most famous hockey player of modern times who has more stories told about him than any other current hockey player and is cheered in many arenas all over Canada and the United States. 

Alas, not everything Hercules experienced was glamorous.

As a hero, Hercules was made to complete some rather challenging tasks. "He even relieved the Titan Atlas of the burden of holding up the heavens," according to MythWeb.com. This act, one of Hercules' Twelve Labors, draws similarities to Ovechkin's role as unofficial spokesperson of the Sochi Games. Much like Hercules, Ovechkin is being forced to take on the weight of the world by fulfilling the responsibility of an individual more qualified to do so. 

While completing this and other heroic obligations, Hercules was harassed and harangued by Hera, the queen of the gods, who "greatly affected the course of Hercules' life," according to The Perseus Digital Library.

Ovechkin's nemesis is Mike Milbury, who will be broadcasting the Olympic hockey tournament from Sochi for NBC Sports. Milbury's behavior towards Ovechkin mirrors that shown by Hera towards Hercules. According to The Perseus Digital Library, Hera "hated the hero so much that she caused him problems at every opportunity.

Through it all, however, Hercules was his own worst enemy. According to GreekMythology.com, Hercules "created most of his own problems" and many of his "great deeds occurred while doing penance for stupid acts done in anger or carelessness." 

This sounds eerily similar to something Ovechkin did at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he was uncharacteristically withdrawn from the media. The incident in question was analyzed at the time by Edward Fraser of The Hockey News

...it’s one thing to withdraw from the public eye by denying media requests and refusing to comment, it’s quite another, very disturbing turn to apparently physically assault an onlooker, no matter whether the camera-person was a fan or member of the media and no matter how he was provoked. Whether he likes it or not, Ovechkin is an ambassador to the NHL and hockey worldwide. Behavior of this ilk is unacceptable...

Due to these and other pitfalls he will face along his arduous journey which begins on Feb. 13, Ovechkin may actually achieve pathos, a Greek concept which is explained by The Perseus Digital Library as "the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering which would lead to fame and, in Hercules' case, immortality." 

If Ovechkin is able to emerge victorious in the face of this unrelenting pressure, he too would receive an immortality of sorts, the same fate awarded Hercules himself according to MythWeb.com. A triumphant Ovechkin would be forever enshrined upon Mt. Olympus with the other Olympians. All future generations would marvel at his strength, courage and perseverance no matter how daunting the challenge. 

Above all else, Ovechkin would be remembered as:

  • A hero among villains.
  • An immortal among mortals.
  • A god among men. 

 

Note: All statistics updated through Feb. 11 courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise. 

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