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When Stars Collide

By Mike Wise
Monday, February 23, 2009

Some of those well-mannered Canadian kids -- the self-anointed puck purists -- just don't get Alex Ovechkin.

Take Sid the Kid, whose moniker served him so well after yesterday's humiliation at the hands of Ovie the Adult, indisputably hockey's greatest player.

After the sport's two young puck deities got chippy with each other near the Penguins' bench -- basically Zeus and Apollo on ice -- Ovechkin waved in mock fashion toward Crosby, almost inciting his peer in a game that was all Capitals, all the time.

If you were to ask Crosby, some of Ovechkin's showmanship and histrionics go overboard.

"I don't like it personally but that's him," Crosby said. "And like it or lump it, that's what he does. Some people like it, some people don't. Personally, I don't like it. But you know what, he's a good player."

Ovie, after the masses of cameras and microphones had cleared out, replied, "He's a good player, but I don't care what he say about me or my game."

Unleash the fury -- or at least the verbiage.

Crosby and the Penguins were not just beaten down by the Caps in a national TV matinee; Ovie punked their best player in a very non-traditional way, in a manner that has become, well, very Ovechkin.

And anathema to anything grand old puckheads revere about the game.

For instance, no one who grew up on a frozen pond in Ottawa or Nova Scotia cocked his glove toward his ear after a goal, exhorting the crowd to make more noise, as Ovechkin did this week. They certainly didn't leap into a pane of glass separating players and fans to commune with their crazed legions, like Ovechkin often does after a goal on his home ice.

The Verizon Vert is now part of the Ovie package, just as trash-talking a goalie is during a pre-game skate in South Florida. That's right, last week he playfully told Florida Panthers goalie Thomas Vokoun he would score twice against him -- then ended up with a hat trick.

And then there was his point toward the heavens, which understandably came after his otherworldly goal against Montreal on Wednesday. Did you see this stunning sequence? The steal at mid-ice, the pass off the boards to himself, the pirouette to regain control of the puck and, finally, a sublime slide and shot from his derriere -- arguably the most breathtaking goal of Ovechkin's young career. (Or at least this season.)

Peter Bondra, recently retired, was asked yesterday between the first and second periods whether he had ever scored a similar goal.

"Not even close," said the Caps' career leader in points and goals. "I maybe score a crazy goal off the glass, hit the goalie in the back and went in. Maybe. But nothing like that, where I'm down, 'Where's the puck? Where's the puck?' and he gets it in.

"I don't know what else to say, he's just amazing."

Bondra, never known for any extreme celebration after scoring, said he has no problem with Ovechkin's flair and fire.

"Everything has limits and you have to respect your opponent," he began, "but it looks pure when he reacts to his scores."

Hal Gill, Pittsburgh's veteran defenseman: "If you don't like it, the best way to stop it is to keep him from scoring."

Bruce Boudreau, the Caps' coach, actually said he closed his eyes after Ovechkin's celebration on Wednesday. Asked to elaborate yesterday, he added that he would have begun laughing if he watched.

Of Ovie's emoting, which always seemed to be a hockey no-no, the former "Slap Shot" extra added, "If they don't like it, boo-hoo."

Even 73-year-old Eddie Johnston, who puts the old in old school, said he is okay with Ovechkin's celebrations. Said the former Penguins coach, who is now a special adviser for the team: "Everything would've flown except him going over to our bench. Great players should be beyond that."

So it turns out Crosby is the only person in the universe who actually has a problem with Ovechkin's boyish exuberance -- and this coming from the guy named Sid the Kid, who recently has copied Ovechkin's leap into the boards.

Describing the play in which he and Ovechkin tangled, "I was skating to the bench and he pushed me from behind so I gave him a shot back," Crosby said. "That's hockey and he likes to run around these days. That was it."

Ovie: "It was not a cheap shot. It was a game moment. If he don't like it, it's his problem."

Ovechkin, when asked if he agreed with Sports Illustrated's assessment that Crosby is the best player in the game, replied, "He's top three, top two players in the NHL." When asked where he stacks up, he added, smiling, "Ovechkin probably top 100."

See, more thinly veiled trash talk.

Look, the two players vying to pull in NHL numbers and fans like The Great One don't have to necessarily get along. In point of fact, Julius Erving and Larry Bird once traded chokeholds and haymakers during a nasty preseason fight.

But Crosby and Ovechkin should agree on one indisputable issue: Hockey is no longer one of a few North American team sports that can survive on their rivalries and history alone; it is one of dozens of entertainment options in a convoluted and depressed market.

No matter what the NHL was before, it needs personalities. It needs showmen. Brett Hull barely raising his stick after scoring doesn't sell anymore.

Going forward, Alex Ovechkin pointing to the heavens after his highlight goals -- and, yes, mocking his adversary for all to see -- puts fans in the seats and grows the product.

So there, Sidney.

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