FOR WASHINGTON hockey fans, Sochi has presented something of a dilemma. Most Washingtonians naturally are rooting for the U.S. men’s hockey team to win its first gold since 1980. On the other hand, there also was a general desire for things to go well for our genial hometown hero, Alexander Ovechkin.
That’s partly out of self-interest, of course. After the Russian meltdown four years ago, Mr. Ovechkin came back, understandably, in something of a funk. His end-of-season production slumped. For the 2013-14 Capitals, already skating on thin ice, a repeat performance would be fatal.
But it’s not only self-interest. The leading scorer of the National Hockey League, with his glamorous girlfriends and jet-setting ways, is never going to be a hometown boy for the hockey fans of Springfield or Gaithersburg. But he has won Washington hearts. He’s done it with his crashing, speeding, unerring talent for lacing the puck into the net. But he’s done it also with his good-natured embrace of fans, his fractured but game English, his evident joy in the competition and the enthusiasm with which he shares that joy with the Verizon Center’s red-jerseyed faithful. We genuinely wish him well.
And there’s something else: We get how unfair the expectations piled on his shoulders were. It wasn’t Mr. Ovechkin’s fault that Russia’s self-aggrandizing leader spent an alleged $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics and concluded that the investment would be seriously compromised if his country’s hockey team didn’t deliver a gold medal. Whatever complex stew of national insecurity and lost-empire nostalgia might be motivating Russia’s leaders and some of its hockey fans isn’t Ovi’s fault. And we understood that when a coach blames a single player for a weak team performance, as Russia’s coach blamed Ovi, it’s the coach who has a problem, not the player. We noticed that it was the scapegoat, alone among the Russian players, who had the class to face the media, humbly and without making excuses, after his team’s 3-1 elimination by Finland on Wednesday.
So come home, Ovi. The Caps can’t claim the Stanley Cup without you playing at your heedless, thrilling best. And if the team doesn’t win the Cup this year, we won’t put all the blame on you. Promise.
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