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D.C.’s top sports star: Alex Ovechkin or Stephen Strasburg?

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Hockey fans were not happy about a recent column in which I listed Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg as the District’s No. 1 sports star, in my opinion, and put Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin second.

On Twitter and in email, they strongly disagreed. In their view, Ovechkin is The Guy. And 91 percent of respondents to a Capitals Insider user poll on the Strasburg-Ovechkin question sided with Ovechkin. 

You’ve spoken and I’ve listened. 

Ovechkin is without peer among the region’s professional athletes, at least among people who participated in the discussion. To them, he’s a rock star in a town of mostly middling performers. 

For me, the debate has been both engaging and enlightening. Because of it, I’m reevaluating my thoughts about hockey. I’m speaking with people who love the sport to learn why they do. When the Capitals report to training camp in September, I’ll be there. 

But I’m a baseball guy. 

As a child, I learned to read while sounding out words in newspaper baseball articles. Watching a well-pitched game is among my favorite things in sports. 

Taking my son to his first baseball game was one of the proudest moments of my life. And Strasburg possesses the ability to become Major League Baseball’s best starting pitcher, which would be a very cool thing for D.C. 

I didn’t grow up watching hockey. For the most part, hockey players, I recall thinking as a kid, didn’t look like me. 

I’ve attended hockey games because of work, even covered the Stanley Cup playoffs, but I prefer baseball, basketball and football. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with hockey. Or wrong with me. It’s just one man’s opinion. 

Still, I didn’t give Ovechkin enough credit. 

Excellence resonates in any arena. Even casual observers notice rare talent.  Ovechkin earned his star standing. He has proven himself during six successful seasons in the NHL — rookie of the year, two-time league MVP, more than 300 career goals, five-time first-team all-star. Without question, Ovechkin is the District’s most successful athlete. His commanding presence and production are the biggest factors in the Capitals’ rise to second-place status in this region behind the Redskins. 

Even so, I rank Ovechkin behind Strasburg, who could emerge as the single most important athlete in D.C. sports history if his performance matches his talent. The hard-throwing right-hander could play the biggest part in transforming D.C. into a place where football no longer rules. 

Because of the spotlight nature of their jobs, dominant starters are capable of captivating cities. “Fernandomania” swept through Los Angeles in 1981 when Dodgers left-hander Fernando Valenzuela became the only player to win the rookie of the year and Cy Young awards in the same season. On the opposite coast three seasons later, New York Mets rookie Dwight Gooden was the talk of the city that never sleeps. 

Strasburg could similarly inspire one day. He provided a taste last season. 

Also, the Capitals’ repeated postseason failure is a factor in my assessment. For all Ovechkin has done to lift the Capitals, he hasn’t led them past the second round of the playoffs. The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team the past two seasons, the Capitals haven’t figured out how to win when it matters most.

In 2010, the Capitals became the first No. 1 seed to lose in a best-of-seven series after leading 3-1. This past season, they were swept in the second round. 

Teams collapse in the playoffs for many reasons. No one person should shoulder the blame. Repeated postseason failure, in my experience, is more indicative of a systemic organizational problem than a star’s shortcomings under pressure. The Capitals’ late-season problems are bigger than Ovechkin, though the person with top billing must accept some responsibility when the show flops. 

Unless the Capitals make big playoff strides in the upcoming season, Ovechkin may even lose his status as the area’s top pro. And several challengers could emerge in the next few seasons.

Strasburg appears on target for a September return to the majors. Bryce Harper’s big league debut could occur next season. And the Nationals are downright giddy about their 2011 draft class. 

Once the NBA schedule resumes after the lockout, the Wizards will continue to promote talented point guard John Wall. With Wall and some good fortune, the NBA playoffs could return to the Verizon Center in the next few seasons. 

After a rough start under Coach Mike Shanahan, the Redskins seem to be moving toward the right road. They’re taking a traditional approach to roster building. That’s a good place to begin. A breakout young Redskins player, especially one with charisma, would shoot to the top of the charts.

D.C.’s pro sports landscape has been barren for so long, a generation of fans has only heard stories about the way it used to be when the Redskins were winning Super Bowls. If the Redskins finally get it right again behind Shanahan, the Capitals finally break through in the playoffs and the Nationals and Wizards reach that level, D.C. would be full of sports stars.

The focus began as Ovechkin or Strasburg? There aren’t many others to include at the moment. But the list could soon grow. And then there could be an even better debate.

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