Saturday, October 28, 2006
Alexander The Gr8
When Tracy and I walked into GM Place last night, there was a special buzz in the air. It wasn't because the Canucks were finally home after spending most of the first month of the season on the road. It wasn't because the boys in Orca Bay blue were 6-4-1 despite playing 9 of their first 11 games away from GM Place. It wasn't because Roberto Luongo has come as advertised, hovering around the league leaders in wins, shots faced, save percentage and goals against average. Or that the brothers Sedin were among the league leaders in scoring and plus-minus rating. Or that Henrik was leading the league in assists.
It was because Alexander Ovechkin was in town.
It was because the Gr8 one, with whom Canucks fans have had somewhat of a lovefest with since last summer's NHL draft when he embraced the city and its fans, was playing his first game in Vancouver.
With all due respect to the other star players to have come to GM Place over the years, it's not often the city goes ga-ga over a player on the visiting team. The buzz last night was similar only to very few others at the Garage. Like when Michael Jordan first came to visit or when Wayne Gretzky beat Kirk McLean for his 802nd career goal or when Mario Lemieux returned from Hodgkin's Disease in 2002.
And now Ovechkin. And he didn't disappoint.
For the most part, the Canucks held Ovechkin in check last night. The Canucks made sure he didn't have the puck a lot and mostly succeeded. Regardless, there was a noticeable sense of anticipation whenever he had the puck. There was a sense that something special was going to happen on his every shift because he is that good.
And according to his coach, he's as good a person as he is talented.
Hanlon, who reckons he must have been the most-interviewed coach in hockey last season -- all questions about Ovechkin -- is facing another wave as the Caps tour the West, in cities that have never seen the Russian play, and might not for another couple of years.Alongside Sid the Kid, he is the face of the NHL and he loves it.
"If I had to lie out the side of my face and say he's a great kid and he really wasn't -- if he was getting all these goals and was selfish, and he was mean-spirited -- I'd get ticked off answering questions about him," Hanlon said.
"But this kid is a legitimate great guy, and you're just happy to be able to speak about him.
"We're proud of him, and with 70 points last year and [playing] .500 right now ... we're not coming into cities like Buffalo is, at 10-0 or whatever. This is what we're selling.
"I think the people see [in Ovechkin] somebody that approaches every day like he's 10 years old playing hockey. When you see him walk in the room, it kind of reminds me of a peewee hockey player on his way to his first travel tournament.
"He brings that attitude every day. Even after games where we've had a tough loss, he brings a level of enthusiasm to the room the next morning that really makes a coach's job easy."
Not only was Ovechkin a hit at the NHL awards gala in Vancouver last June, the Moscow native carried the goodwill to the entry draft stage where he warmly welcomed the Caps' first pick, Nicklas Backstrom, and willingly did the corporate schmooze with league sponsors.Which brings me to a sore point.
It's like the 21-year-old Ovechkin is a pied piper. Countrymen Ilya Kovalchuk, Maxim Afinogenov, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin are following suit by not masking their emotions.
Quick, somebody call Gary Bettman. Get this guy's mug on billboards. And get the commissioner to change a ridiculous schedule that has the phenom visiting here just once every three years.
I've never been a big fan of the unbalanced schedule. And it stinks that we won't see the Gr8 one again for at least a couple more years. He's the kind of big talent that justifies paying big bucks to watch hockey games. He's the kind of ambassador the NHL has been looking for to promote the game.
Yet 10 teams - one-thirds of the entire league - won't see him live this season.
Caps teammate Olaf Kolzig agrees with this sentiment (via Terry Frei, ESPN):
Kolzig said he "totally" understands the frustration over seeing Ovechkin only once every three seasons.Now, there is talk that the NHL is looking into the schedule, but for one more season at least, they will stick with the unbalanced format. If they're smart, they'll eventually make the change and ensure players like Ovechkin will visit every NHL city every season.
"It's the same for us," he said. "It's always a nice change of pace to get away from the East Coast and come out to some great cities like Denver and Phoenix and L.A. and Vancouver. When you're only doing that once every three years, and Raleigh [four] times and Sunrise, Florida, players can get stale, so I can understand their frustration. I hope they go back to the old format."
And the fans in the West are missing a rare combination of maturity and talent.
"You see so many young kids come in the league, and the skill is there, but it's the maturity level that takes a while to develop," Kolzig said. "Alex, from day one last year, just wanted to fit in with the team so badly. He wanted to room with a North American guy, wanted to learn the language, wanted to learn the culture. He was part of the dressing room from day one. There was no sitting off in the corner by yourself and taking everything in. He dove right in and became part of the team, and I think that contributed to how he played last year. He felt comfortable on the ice."
All of this cuts both ways, of course. The fans in the East don't get enough opportunities to see, at least not in person, Jonathan Cheechoo or, for that matter, Joe Thornton any longer.
But at least, at this point, the West is getting the short end of the stick.
I know I'm looking forward to the next time he comes to Vancouver; I just hope I don't have to wait until 2010 to do so.
Comments/Questions: Feel free to post in the comments section or email me at gocanucksgo10 (at) hotmail (dot) com.
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