None of that, nor his months of mostly praise for Ovechkin and the Capitals, would have been striking to a first-time viewer, fresh in from the Alaskan wilderness. But to Caps fans who have spent years recoiling from Milbury’s analysis, something seems different.
This, after all, was the man who previously called Ovechkin a coach killer; who once flayed him for “an awful display of hockey” and said “he should be embarrassed;” who described him as “just a one-dimensional player” and concluded that “I haven’t seen this player change over time.” Now that Ovechkin is back in the national spotlight with a second-round series against Crosby and the Penguins, it’s worth asking: Has the player changed, or has Milbury?
“I don’t think I’ve changed at all,” Milbury said in a phone conversation this week. “I’m actually too old to change. I base my comments on my observations. I like to feel that the game comes to me. I don’t bring any bias — or I try not to bring any bias. We all have certain histories and prejudices, I guess, but what’s beautiful about my job is that the players’ actions just reveal themselves to me, and I try to explain them or justify them or criticize them. I’ve never set out to be a fan of a particular player, or a critic of a particular player. I just let the events unfold and try to make sense of them.”
When he looks at Ovechkin now, Milbury sees an offensive dynamo, someone who is “the premium goal scorer in the league, and who has been for the past decade.” He sees a player who exudes effort and physicality, who “tries like a son of a [gun] to run into people and hit people.” He sees someone who won’t be a candidate for the Selke Trophy, given to the league’s top defensive forward, “nor does he have to be.” He sees a captain who “has gone a mile with Barry Trotz to try to change his game, to try to narrow it in some ways.” And he sees a star who meets the most important standard for any professional athlete.
“There are no perfect players, but what the paying customer can and should always get when they buy a ticket is somebody’s best effort,” Milbury said. “And from a physical standpoint, I’ve never ever questioned his desire and his work ethic in a hockey game. How he goes about it, how he approaches it, maybe. But the fact is, this guy, he will run through walls. When you watch him shoot his one-timer from the face-off circle, I don’t think there’s another athlete in the business that exerts more effort and intensity in unleashing a shot. That effort is always there, and I’ve never questioned that. It’s more the approach and the study of the game.”
If you fact-check Milbury’s every word over the past decade, you might quibble with some of this. And the fact is, many Caps fans care not at all what he thinks, and will be angry at me for even writing this column instead of breaking down Game 1. (Here’s a brief analysis, courtesy John Carlson: “Both teams played really hard.”) Many Caps fans think Milbury has criticized Ovechkin too many times to claim he’s unbiased, and they’re no longer interested in his thoughts. He’s perfectly aware of this.
“You kidding? When I was in Washington for games, I’d try to walk with my back to the wall,” he joked. “I’ve been in Washington, and I’ve felt the venom and the wrath of the fans. People have to listen to what I say, not just whatever ticks them off. Hear the rest of it, too.”
And so Milbury argues that he’s always praised Ovechkin for the things he’s done well, but has just asked for more: more situational awareness, more defensive responsibility, more team success. He argues something else, too: that if national analysts did nothing but praise every star, their broadcasts would be fairly boring. On this point, I sympathize. It’s not like I haven’t gotten plenty of mileage out of ripping Mike Milbury.
“I’m not there to toast everybody’s marshmallows,” Milbury said. “It’s our job to explain, or try to explain, the traffic on the ice. Why did this happen? Who did this? Why did they do this? What should they have done? So that means criticism. If there were no mistakes in a hockey game, I’ve never seen it. And it’s our job to sort of point those out, and point out the options, and try to make it more understandable.”
Milbury said he couldn’t think of anything he said about Ovechkin that he regretted, but the former GM also reflected on the beginning of broadcasting career. When he started, he said, “probably like anybody new at their job, I threw in probably more heat than controlled observation.” But he said his criticisms consistently came with praise for Ovechkin’s effort and physical prowess, that Washington’s star “tries as hard as anybody, and I don’t think anybody can deny that.”
If Milbury reviewed a complete transcript of his Ovechkin musings, I’m guessing he might want a few of his lines back. That’s not rare in this industry. (For example, let me please rescind everything I ever wrote in praise of Gilbert Arenas.)
And it’s certainly fine to tune him out — there’s no shortage of hockey content — but his platform helps shape the national narrative about Washington’s most successful team. My own view is that Milbury was sometimes unfair toward Ovechkin, that he overlooked his accomplishments while picking away at his perceived flaws, and that he did so with an edge. But I can’t fault him for stubbornness. His tone has changed as this team has. He said this week that Ovechkin’s play to set up the series-winning goal against the Flyers was a risky decision, but that “only the great players try that,” and it worked.
“I think he’s made an effort, and I think he’s to be congratulated for that,” Milbury said. “The coaching mantra is you play to your strengths and try to minimize your weaknesses, and I think he’s trying to do that. And how successful he is with that, we’ll find out.”