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Ovechkin needs to tame his aggressive play

Two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin is seemingly more recognized this season for his hard hits and aggressive play. At age 24, Ovechkin is no longer indestructible, even if he sometimes thinks he is.
Two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin is seemingly more recognized this season for his hard hits and aggressive play. At age 24, Ovechkin is no longer indestructible, even if he sometimes thinks he is. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Alex Ovechkin should slow down and live. If he can.

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Athletes in many sports use the same expression for someone who plays with a reckless abandon that borders on self-destruction: "He plays like he's using somebody else's body." It's meant as a compliment to courage, but there's also an overtone of disaster.

Suddenly this season, his fifth in the NHL, two-time MVP Ovechkin is discovering that it really is his own body, not some Cyborg rental unit, that he's using as a blunt instrument to bash everybody in sight. Usually within the rules, but sometimes -- and too often recently -- outside them.

On Tuesday, the news was fairly good. Ovechkin skated briefly at the Capitals' practice rink after a knee-to-knee hit Monday night that, in addition to getting him an ejection and game-misconduct penalty, looked like it could have been a serious injury. On slow-motion replays, his knee clearly buckled sideways. But it held. This time.

So, Ovechkin's knee will get better, just like the shoulder injury that sidelined him six games earlier this season. Are these just warning shots from Mother Nature? What's clear is, at 24, Ovie is no longer indestructible, even if he thinks he is. The time has come for him to evaluate how he will play the rest of his career.

We know his view. After being ejected just three games ago when he ran Patrick Kaleta face-first into the glass, Ovechkin said of his all-aggression, all-the-time style: "I can't do nothing about it. I just play my game. It's not going to change. It's me."

Ovechkin is all of a piece -- a live-on-the-edge outlier. What looks like excessive violence to others may look like a thrill or a challenge to him. His $300,000 Black Series AMG Mercedes -- the one with the AOGR8 license plate -- is a "supercar" with 12 cylinders, two turbo chargers and 700 horsepower. It can go 200 mph. He's had his other cars customized so they can go faster. In an ESPN feature piece, he appeared to take the reporter from zero-to-warp-speed in about four seconds.

"We are a little worried about his driving habits," Caps General Manager George McPhee said at the time.

So, sympathize with the Caps' front office. Fear for Ovechkin himself. But also appreciate that his teammates adore this break-neck style and wouldn't change him for the world. Whether scoring a goal or stalking a foe to blow up at full speed, Mr. Chaos creates space and opportunity for others, inspires teammates and excites the crowd.

Yet everything has its limits. And Ovechkin is at or past the edge. On Tuesday, the NHL suspended him for two games for his knee-to-knee collision with Carolina's Tim Gleason, his second five-minute-major hit within a week.

"He's pretty reckless," Coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters. "It's hard telling a guy that scores 60 goals a year to change the way he plays. At the same time, I don't want to see him getting hurt. Maybe he has to pick his spots a little better."

Would the Caps talk to Ovechkin about toning down a bit? "As a coach, and someone who admires him, I just don't want to see him put himself in harm's way. So, we'll see," Boudreau said. "I don't think anything said is going to change the way he plays."


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