COLUMN | In a small corridor of the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Friday afternoon, two rivals in time spotted one another between practices. Alex Ovechkin slowly approached Sidney Crosby.
“Yeah, I just shake hands,” Ovechkin said on his first day back on home soil. “Saw him, his dad. Say good luck.”
What did Crosby say to you?
Oh, it’s on. It is so on.
If I root for a Russian to win a gold medal in hockey, should I seek temporary asylum and bunk with Edward Snowden? If I root for Ovechkin and Team Russia to beat Canada or Sweden — or, heaven forbid, good ol’ Team USA — two weeks from now in the final of the Olympic hockey tournament, should I be called unpatriotic and tried for treason?
I’ll answer: No.
The biggest hockey star in the largest land-mass country in the world touched down Monday morning, tasked with the modest responsibility of making 143 million people happy.
I’m rooting for Ovechkin not because I peripherally know him as a Washington Capital and generally like him and I don’t really know most other nations’ national team players. Nor am I rooting for him solely because he is the most identifiable, breathtaking player in the most important sport in his homeland. Or that, frankly, nothing bring goose bumps to the Games like a local hero.
Those are good reasons. But I’m rooting for Ovechkin because of the perception he has to win. For my money, any elite athlete that overcomes that kind of pressure and expectation to succeed deserves more support than scrutiny.
“All the Russian fans are relying on you,” said the foreign journalist several rows back of Ovechkin early Monday evening after Team Russia’s first practice here. “How does it feel for you?”
The man added once more, “All the nation is relying on you right now.”
“I like pressure,” a very composed Ovechkin replied. “I like how the people look at me. It means the people respect you.”
“Do you feel the pressure of having to win gold?” he was asked.
“[Sigh] The pressure is going to come 100 percent,” he said. “But right now we just have a jet lag.”
Ovi and other NHL players landed early Monday morning after flying all night. Whisked out of the airport past a crush of cooing reporters, some of whom wore red Team Russia jackets and called for Ovechkin as if he were their favorite crooner from One Direction, the remaining members of Team Russia made it to their media village where they were greeted as flat-out rock stars.
“Especially in the village with the guys who worked there,” Ovechkin said. “It’s something crazy. But, you know, we all appreciate them what they do for us to [make us] comfortable for the athletes.
“They ask for signatures and photos. I didn’t see anybody who said no.”
His gap-toothed, grinning image is everywhere here. On Coke billboards. On phone cards. On bathroom stalls and restaurant awnings. For two straight weeks, he is everything to everyone here, literally Father Russia.
Prodigal son, back to save the day from America; commercial pitchman, selling Sochi’s Games harder than Putin; hockey icon, entrusted with making his nation as proud of its hockey team as it was when the USSR and the Unified Team won eight gold medals in 10 Olympics between 1956 and 1992.
Vladislav Tretiak, the president of the Russian Hockey Federation who lit the torch in the Opening Ceremonies and was once thought to be the greatest goalie ever, met Ovechkin at the airport Monday and wished him well.
On a purely provincial level, Ovechkin coming back to Washington with a gold medal around his neck might be the kind of championship validation he needs to raise the Stanley Cup sooner than later in Washington.
Crosby completed the double at the last Olympics in 2010, scoring his golden overtime goal against Team USA in Vancouver months after hoisting the grail with the Pittsburgh Penguins the previous June.
Since Russia’s embarrassing 7-3 loss to Canada four years ago at the Olympics, the narrative of their rivalry changed. One scored goals and won three Hart Trophies. The other passed the puck, shot when needed and won a gold medal to go with his Cup.
That’s why I’m also rooting for Ovechkin for the NHL’s marketing sake. A Team Russia gold ups the ante in a rivalry where Ovechkin is clearly now playing catch-up.
Finally, on a personal note, it’s hard to not get charmed by the hometown team, watching Olympians thrive in front of their countrymen like they never have elsewhere and may never again.
Seeing Cathy Freeman round the curve in the 400 meters in Sydney in 2000 was probably the most enthralling, emotional moment I’ve ever witnessed in sports — an Aboriginal woman winning gold to help heal the guilt over a nation’s mistreatment of its indigenous people. Hard-bitten journalists who had covered numerous Olympics and had no bias shed tears that night. It was better than any in-person Michael Jordan jumper over Bryon Russell for a championship.
And I’ll admit it: Watching Crosby turn Canada into one monstrous roar with that goal in 2010 was awesome, the best storybook ending to a hockey game at the Olympics since the Miracle on Ice.
But I also enjoy watching the maturation of a great player, seeing a guy like Ovi grow up and get it. He admitted as much Monday, saying this wasn’t 2006 or 2010.
“Well, of course, it’s age,” Ovechkin said. “Of course, you’re not young. It’s now my third Olympic Games. I notice what can happen, what’s going to happen. [The situation] is simple. You have to enjoy your moment and enjoy your time. Soon as you think about different stuff you gonna be stuck in something bad.”
He was asked what a gold medal would mean on his home ice after seeing Canada do it, what would gold ultimately mean after all those billions spent on Sochi?
“Um, the gold going to cost $50 billion,” he said, smiling. “Probably.”
Ovechkin was finally asked how important this tournament would rank in his career and life. He didn’t shy away from the question.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be my biggest tournament,” he said. “You can’t compare Torino to Vancouver to Sochi. Torino was my first Olympics. I was , and everything was new for me. It was crazy. And in Vancouver we play against Canada, uh, that was crazy moment. And right now I’m playing for my country at home. This is another crazy moment. I’m pretty sure if you ask any Canadian guy what was their biggest moment, and they will say playing for national team. So this is the biggest moment for me.”
The biggest moment, the biggest stage, the biggest star, three days away from putting 143 million on his back as he glides up ice with the puck and these Olympics — his Olympics — on his stick.
National allegiance aside, considering that kind of pressure, who not from Nova Scotia or Pittsburgh wouldn’t root for him?