I've tried to root for Alexander Ovechkin. I have. But it's an impossible task for me.
I don't deny the man's talent. His goal totals, point totals, clutch goal scoring, MVPs, and athletic ability speak for themselves. He's one of the most dynamic and exciting players I've ever seen. He's simply fun to watch. But Ovechkin's talent is not what I take issue with. It's his behavior, when dissected, that is indefensible.
Ovechkin is a dirty player. Not just physical. Dirty. And like most lazy people when cleaning their homes; his biggest fans try to sweep that dirt under the rug and obfuscate his less than desirable behavior.
Ovechkin has received three game misconducts thus far in the 2009-2010 season. The league leader in game misconducts. The most recent was a check from behind on Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell. Almost immediately, the desperate justifications began.
Some people said it was a push, not a check; as if pushing someone into the boards from behind was okay, but checking them wasn't. Some claimed Ovechkin hit him from the side, not the back (an argument I can refute with a link to photographic evidence to the contrary). Some even tried to hide behind the wording of the NHL's boarding rule, arguing that even though Ovechkin hurt someone with a reckless play, he didn't target Campbell's head, so it shouldn't have been a five-minute penalty. And while I expect irrational responses on the Internet from common fans, the so-called experts behave no better.
During the intermission on the NBC broadcast of the game, Pierre McGuirre even went so far as to praise Ovechkin's strength on the hit. Mike Milbury blamed the NHL, insinuating they have the officials overreacting to everything because of recent events. As I watched the NBC intermission, I was sickened. It was as if Ovechkin was the victim, not Brian Campbell.
These arguments bear a striking resemblance to some rape cases. The blame is placed on the woman for putting herself in a prone position. I suppose, concerning his injury, by playing the puck with Ovechkin bearing down on his back Campbell was "asking for it." (Yeah, I went there. DEAL WITH IT!)
This reckless play by Ovechkin isn't an isolated incident either. It extends beyond the plays which earned Ovechkin his previous ejections. He's done things that would likely earn a player of lesser stature far stiffer penalties.
A hit on Daniel Briere (then with the Sabres) immediately comes to mind. He got away with it. No supplementary discipline.
In last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals, Ovechkin delivered a malicious knee-on-knee hit to Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar suffered a partially torn MCL from the play. Ovechkin received a two-minute minor on the play. Predictably, some blamed Gonchar for trying to avoid the hit, while simultaneously creating the "he led with his shoulder" meme (a derisive comment among pens fans anytime a player leads with a knee or an elbow).
Diving, feigning injury? Yep. That's Alex Ovechkin too. R.J. Umberger and Chris Kunitz have seen it up close and personal.
I could go on-and-on about Ovechkin's cloaked rap sheet. Jamie Heward, Rich Peverley, Denis Wideman, Dustin Brown. All of these men have felt the wraith of Ovechkin's thoughtless "passion" for physical play. And that's just in the NHL.
You can find some disturbing videos of Ovechkin during international play as well. But that's what is even more troubling. Ovechkin's behavior isn't limited to dangerous or unsportsmanlike plays on the ice.
Ovechkin has bragged about his speeding exploits on the DC highways. During the Vancouver Olympic Games, Ovechkin shoved a female fan who was taking video of him. For much of the Olympics, he refused to do interviews with anyone but the Russian media. Are these prison worthy offenses? Driving like an idiot puts other people in danger, but otherwise, no.
And perhaps the most trifling (but also most telling) criticism I could bring against Ovechkin is his often overly exuberant goal celebrations. They don't hurt anyone, but a decent person doesn't rub their opponents noses in every goal, especially when someone scores as often as Ovechkin does. You call is passion, I call it bad sportsmanship.
All of these things, when combined, paint a picture of Ovechkin that resembles that of a spoiled Hollywood diva with a gross sense of entitlement and self-importance. And few people see it, or allow themselves to see it. For every Michael Wilbon who will call Ovechkin out, there's a million Greg Wyshynskis who will defend Ovechkin behind unconvincing masks of impartiality, and keep this charade going.
Ovechkin is one of the most egocentric and reckless athletes in pro sports. He's also really good. In some people's eyes that apparently gives him carte blanche to do whatever he wants. They praise Ovechkin's name to the heavens and defend or dismiss everything he does. I'm glad I'm not among the herd. As Mark Twain once said, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect."