Ovechkin's Critics Need to Cool Down

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, March 21, 2009

Let the Great Eight celebrate.

The last thing the NHL needs is to inhibit its most exciting star for the sake of maintaining the decorum that every other major sport abandoned 30 years ago.

That includes Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals' excellent but old-school coach who apparently paddled Alex Ovechkin in private yesterday, then said: "I've never seen him do a celebration like that. But I don't expect it to happen again."

If it does, just take a few deep breaths. Join the 21st century, or, for that matter, the last quarter of the 20th. Ovechkin doesn't need to stop his goal-glorifying antics, not even his controversial premeditated "hot-hot-hot stick" pantomime on Thursday night after scoring his 50th goal of the season.

The Caps superstar just needs to improve his act. A lot. Remember, the idea is for folks to laugh with you, not at you. In Tampa, Ovechkin looked like an old man bending over to pick up his cane.

After Chad Johnson or Deion Sanders scored, their end-zone pranks and dances never looked like geriatric calisthenics. Alex, contact the old Fun Bunch for concepts.

Goalie José Theodore had the original idea: Teammates Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green would join Ovechkin. They'd pull their hands away from his stick, pretending it was too hot to touch. But when Ovechkin scored in the first period, they got old-school shy.

"Backie stopped and Greenie stopped, so I have to do it myself," Ovechkin said.

Memo to the Caps: If you instigate, then participate. Don't egg on your star and choreograph his shtick, then leave him hanging.

"He wanted me to join in, but there was no way I would join in on that," Green said. "I just kind of stood back and let him do what he does."

That's how powerful the NHL's conservative, self-effacing culture can be. Top players, and good coaches, get paralyzed at the mere thought of acting goofy or self-congratulatory. That's just not how it's done in Moose Jaw. Elk would blush. Migratory fowl might lose their bearing.

If Canadian TV commentator Don Cherry, rival star Sidney Crosby and the NHL's puck purists don't like Ovie's stick shtick -- and they already hate his spontaneous glass-smash leaps -- they can go watch black-and-white tapes of Rocket Richard.

"Oh, yeah, [Cherry's] going to be [ticked] off for sure. I love it," Ovechkin said. "I can't wait till he says something about me. Old coaches, old system, you know?"

Little did Ovechkin know that, the next day, his own coach would pull a Don Cherry on him.

"Bruce asked me what I mean to do this," Ovechkin said. "I just have fun. He said people might think I don't respect different team. But I respect everybody. I don't want to show bad things. I show my thing. It was not disrespect."

When a charismatic, 23-year-old reigning MVP wants to "do his thing," and it's more modest than what lesser stars have done in every other sport for a generation, the adults should let him do it. Young genius has prerogatives, too.

The NHL needs all the help it can get to attract new fans and get the major TV contract it desperately lacks. Yet the snipers are already after No. 8.

"He's the game's most dominant scorer, but to do that, especially on our ice, I took it as an insult," Tampa Bay winger Ryan Malone told the St. Petersburg Times. "It's embarrassing. This isn't football."

As one of my editors blurted: "No, it's not football, you moron. Football has a billion-dollar TV deal."

Lightning Coach Rick Tocchet took such offense, he suggested his team should have started a series of brawls. "I grew up in the old days in the Spectrum where that first period, after that happened, it might have been a three-hour first period," Tocchet said.

"I was in the [penalty] box at the time," Malone told the Times. "But you remember it. You make him pay the right way."

Tampa Bay had two more periods to defend the aesthetics of the sport but chose to abstain. Instead, the Lightning just lost, 5-2, as Ovechkin got two more points on assists.

Fifty years ago, all sports had a no-hot dog culture of humility. Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali and the '60s changed that forever. Celebration of self became acceptable -- if you could back it up, if you did it with style and if it didn't undermine your team.

The NFL and NBA were the showiest. But by the '70s, when Darold Knowles said of Reggie Jackson, "There isn't enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog," baseball was on board, too.

What's amazing is that the NHL is still in a time warp. You can't do anything, except have a group hug or skate around kissing the Stanley Cup. It's quaint. But it's not holy writ.

The irony of the league is that fistfights, even those that leave blood on the ice, still don't offend anyone. The only issue: How many brawls is the right number?

Yet upon joining Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky as the only players to score 50 goals in three of their first four seasons, Ovechkin can't pretend that his stick is too hot to handle without being ripped, wrist-slapped and threatened with retaliation.

Ovechkin shouldn't worry. Over time, he will inevitably define Washington's hockey team. Ovechkin's aggressive style, violent hits, grinning gap-toothed personality and even his celebrations will be their insignia and badge of pride.

The Caps could, in a couple of years, be the wildest and craziest team in the NHL and still be more traditional than any NFL, NBA or MLB franchise by miles. If they evolve in that direction, however, they've just got to get better material. And they have to do it together -- not with one player, left alone, patting himself on the back.

Joe Gibbs had the right idea, way back in the early '80s, when he told his champion Redskins that they could have their fun as long as they did it collectively. Showboat as a group or don't do it at all. The individual can score by himself, but the team must celebrate together. Many a local fan still delights in those group high-fives in the end zone. But it was always a group leap toward glory.

By their smallest deeds, even in their smallest hot-stick trick, the young Caps now take responsibility for their own internal culture. It must reflect them, as well as their elders. The Caps are a gifted, creative and, yes, expressive team. Call it the Russian influence. Within reason, there's no reason to inhibit them too much.

If sticking a toe into modern times irks some of their stuck-in-the-'50s NHL rivals, who cares?

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