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.

"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."
Alongside Sid the Kid, he is the face of the NHL and he loves it.
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.

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.
Which brings me to a sore point.

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.

"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.
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.

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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posted by J.J. Guerrero, 2:37 PM


At October 28, 2006 5:33 PM, Blogger The Acid Queen said...

I don't blame Olie one bit--I'm sick of seeing the Crapitals in Raleigh four times a season too. ;)

At October 29, 2006 11:07 AM, Blogger d-lee said...

I second that. Err... third that. I get so tired of seeing players that a lot of folks would love to see. I know a lot of (particularly) Western Conference fans would love to see a player like Ilya Kovalchuk, I've skipped games against the Thrashers simply because I've seen them enough.
Conversely, I'll get my first glimpse of Jonathan Cheechoo in March, and I won't see him again for three years. I haven't seen the Sedins or Jarmoe Iginla since '03, and I won't be seeing them until next year.

I realize that the idea is to cut down on traveling, to save the teams and the League some money, but it sucks for fans.

At October 29, 2006 11:42 AM, Blogger hoopsjunky said...

We'll see Kovalchuk finally in February, and of course your 'Canes are here in December. Sidney Crosby, we won't even see until next year.

The funny thing about that point about travelling is, at the Canucks state of the franchise in June, Dave Nonis mentioned that the Canucks travelled almost as much as in previous seasons. I can't remember if they travelled one less mile or spent one less hour in the air, but the number was insignificant.

At October 30, 2006 1:04 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

One thing I found interesting about watching the two Washington games last week (vs Oilers and Canucks) was the incredible level of hype around Ovechkin in the broadcasts -- it seemed like most of the commentary focused on him, and the camera followed him around constantly whether he was spitting on the bench or floating around the neutral zone.

And I guess I was watching partly because I was curious to see the guy play, but I felt like my expectations were unrealistically pushed into the stratosphere. Sure, he's a dynamic player, but despite the announcers fawning over him and the constant attention, I didn't feel like he stood out that much. Maybe the game of hockey itself is so fast and intense that it makes it harder for stars to emerge in an obvious way?

At October 30, 2006 5:26 PM, Anonymous Sternip said...

Great post, it should be in a newspaper rather than on a webpage (no offence to this site as it's one I read regularly, though you know what I mean).

At October 31, 2006 6:33 AM, Blogger hoopsjunky said...

sternip - Oh wow, thanks for the compliment!

jeremy - I think the Canucks did a great job of defending against him on Friday night. They even`forced Hanlon to play him on different lines (though I think that started also with Chris Clark spending 7 minutes in the box).

You're right that he maybe didn't stand out as much as what was expected of him. But there's no denying that he is a a superstar and everyone felt that feeling that there was a superstar in the building. And whenever he stepped out on the ice, there was a sense that he was going to do something special (even if he didn't). Even fans applauded when he scored and was relunctant to boo him when he ran over Luongo - now that's superstar status for ya! ;)

Part of me was hoping that he would show off a bit and score a hat trick or something, but as a Canucks fan, I was pretty happy with the turnout.

At October 31, 2006 8:23 AM, Blogger Jeremy said...

I bet it was quite a different experience in person, too. It only takes one irritating colour commentator harping on something to make you wish it (whatever they've chosen to focus on) would just go away.

When you describe the buzz of the crowd that way, it reminded me of watching Malkin at the World Juniors last year. He didn't look super flashy most shifts, but there was that sense when he went over the boards that something interesting could happen. And even when he didn't seem to be doing much, you'd look at the scoresheet at the end and find out that he had a goal and an assist in a tight game.


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