No, Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin has not obtained dual citizenship. And no, he doesn't even play in a traditional, or even Canadian market for that matter. But as one of the few faces of the post-lockout NHL, he is perhaps the biggest and brightest star on which to build the next great dynasty.
When "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky, began his career in the NHL in 1979, the storyline was set up perfectly. The Brantford, Ontario native was obviously not only Canadian, which made perfect marketing sense, but played for one of the NHL's newest markets in Edmonton.
Not coincidentally, he literally helped place it firmly on the map for almost the rest of the next decade with four Stanley Cups. He helped anchor the NHL's newest powerhouse in what became a solid, traditional market where 18,000 fans were standard on most nights in a league where this was far from the norm.
As I outlined in a previous article, The Great L.A. Kings Heist of '88: Re-Evaluating the Gretzky Trade , the impact of native Canadians helping push and promote this league is missing since the days of its peak in the 1980s. Sure, they still make up a great percentage of the league, where the fans are the most informed and passionate on the matter, but it isn't the same as it once was and that is a problem.
Missing Impact Canadians as Leaders on Traditional Teams
The best thing the NHL has going in this regard is Nova Scotian Sidney Crosby and his teammate and Thunder Bay, Ontario native, Jordan Staal, on the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The only problem is, that market is not in Canada. The two are still ridiculously young at 22 and 21 years of age, respectively. With already two Stanley Cup Finals appearances, one resulting in a Cup, to say the future looks bright in the Steel City would be an insult to their intelligence and I'm far from a Penguins or Crosby fan.
Considering the core they have and their experience and success already—similar to the Edmonton Oilers of the eighties—these Penguins are the closest thing the NHL has to the next dynasty, even if that dynasty will extend over two decades by default.
Like those Oilers who won four Cups together mostly at their peak (they won another in 1990 with some new members acquired from the Gretzky deal and were already minus future Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey in 1987), these Penguins have a chance to win a similar number of Cups, if not more, sacrilege as that may seem.
Equation: Canadian born+superstar+traditional Canadian market=NHL face of the league+
Another Missing Component
So why the picture of Ovechkin, you ask? The former was to build up my first point of the lack of an impact player who fits both the mold of being a superstar Canadian that Crosby is, but also one that plays in a traditional Canadian market that the fans and league can build around.
Now I'm not suggesting that either Crosby, Staal, or Ovechkin will ever come close to being the next Great One. Like any sport desperate for its latest torch bearer, I come from the school of thought: Why does someone have to be the next anyone? Why can't we accept what we had was special, good enough, and we were just fortunate enough to experience it? The NBA is notorious for this in trying to find the next Jordan, which simply will never and should never happen.
The NHL is no exception. Gretzky scored 137 points (51 goals, 86 assists) in his first official (rookie) season in the league. Crosby? He was lucky to score 100 points (102 actually: 39 goals, 63 assists) and didn't even win the Calder, thanks only to Ovechkin.
While this appears to knock Crosby, consider his Calder Trophy peers the last decade and a half since Gretzky's prime.
1995: Peter Forsberg, Quebec Nordiques, 15 goals, 35 assists, 50 points (Swedish)
1996: Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators, 26 goals, 35 assists, (Swedish)
1997: Sergei Samsonov, Boston Bruins, 22 goals, 25 assists, 47 points (Russian)
1998: Chris Drury, Colorado Avalanche, 20 goals, 24 assists, 44 points (American)
1999: Scott Gomez, NJ Devils, 19 goals, 51 assists, 70 points (American)
2000: Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose Sharks, goalie (Russian)
2001: Dany Heatley, Atlanta Thrashers, 26 goals, 41 assists, 67 points, (W. German)
2002: Barrett Jackman, St. Louis Blues, defense, hell of a plus/minus (plus-23), but little else (Canadian)
2003: Andrew Raycroft, Boston Bruins, goalie (Canadian)
2004: No Calder, locked out
2005: Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, 52 goals, 56 assists (Russian)
2006: Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins, 33 goals, 52 assists (Russian)
2007: Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks, 21 goals, 51 assists, 72 points (American)
2008: Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets, goalie (Canadian)
So what does all this mean?
After looking at his peers, Crosby's debut year looks fantastic by comparison. In fact, that 2005-06 season, in which he and Ovechkin battled it out on and off the ice for headlines, wins etc., was the first time in a long time I felt the league was returning to its roots with good, young, impactful, NHL superstars to build around, like the nostalgic days of old.
In addition to that, how many fit the above equation?
Canadian born+superstar+traditional Canadian market=NHL face of the league+? None. That's half the problem, no foundation to build around.
So what's the complaint? Just because Ovechkin doesn't play for the Calgary Flames and didn't grow up in Stony Plain, Alberta, the NHL isn't as good of a product as it could be?
No, while those factors would all help—in addition to a slew of teammates sharing the same geographical characteristics—what the NHL really needs is more 100-plus point scorers, like in the days of old.
Lack of a 100-150 Point Scorer
This is the final characteristic to the equation that Gretzky fulfilled. Problem is, so did his teammates Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Glenn Anderson.
Now are you understanding where I am coming from? This wasn't just a fad, or a few players in the NHL that could do this (as there still are only a few today); they were all on the same team , showcasing how far the league has fallen from its glory days. To add insult to injury, they were backed up, literally, by fellow Canadian and future Hall of Fame goalie, Grant Fuhr.
The NHL has come a long ways from its even more pitiful days of Martin St. Louis embarrassingly leading the league in scoring with a paltry 94 points in 2003-04 for the non-traditional Tampa Bay Lightning. And talk about adding insult to injury, this Florida team beat a hockey hotbed in the Calgary Flames, whose win could have really re- energized a stagnant but still hungry base.
Sure, we've got Malkin, Ovechkin, and Crosby to rally around, but can any one of them take it to the next level and score so much as 150 points? Since they've all cracked 100, why not try one step further to infuse some sense of familiarity and lore with a solid 150-point season, one that the NHL hasn't seen by a player since Mario Lemieux's 160 in 1992-93.
The only thing that would have made that better, and completed the equation the NHL so desperately needs if it really wants to get back into the ratings discussion or television competition conversation, would have been if Lemieux could have somehow ended up in his native Quebec. Maybe then the NHL could have been saved there instead of Pittsburgh and maybe Crosby, Staal, and Malkin could be doing their thing for Les Nordiques.
If only he could have joined a Phoenix ownership group to relocate them to Quebec. But then again, the Penguins would probably be in Kansas City right now and no one could have predicted the demise of the Coyotes or the possible re-birth of Quebec's team.
In addition, after what Lemieux did for the city of Pittsburgh in playing for them all those years, winning Cups, and saving the franchise, there is no way he could have moved them to Quebec, nice as it could could have been.
If you are thinking, could this lead to a future article completing the equation? You'd be right and I'll save that for another day. In fact, if anyone would like to write it, I'd be more than happy to read and endorse it. The NHL needs another Lemieux, but since one doesn't appear to be on the horizon, Ovechkin presents the best opportunity for a 150-point scorer. In my preseason predictions, I picked him to get this milestone off 67 goals and 83 assists.
Considering he scored 65 goals two years ago and had 112 points, to get an additional 38 points isn't out of the question. After all, through 11 games he has 19 points—11 goals, eight assists—on pace for 142. While he certainly won't maintain this pace, the fact that he can get two to three points in a single game and does it in bunches, anything is possible.
Could anyone else step up?