VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It wasn't that Russia's star-studded lineup didn't look unstoppable or brilliant on Tuesday night; at times it did. But for its debut in the tournament that Team Canada coach Mike Babcock says could end up being "the best hockey event of all time," Russia often looked tight, too self-conscious. It held just a three-goal lead over Latvia early in the third period when Alexander Ovechkin jolted his team to life.
Scrambling off his knees, Ovechkin gathered in a pass high along the left wing and sent the puck sizzling into the net. The horn, the screaming filled Canada Hockey Place. And just like that, everything changed.
Bang-bang: Russia scored twice more in the next 125 seconds to seal their eventual 8-2 win, and if there had been any doubt that Ovechkin would be the hammering heart of the Russian bear here, it was now gone. Thus, as the clock closed in on 11 p.m., the 2010 Olympic ice hockey tournament -- for most Canadians, the only Winter games that matter -- began for real.
Yes, most natives might point to the instant, seven hours earlier, when Team Canada hit the ice in blood-red sweaters for the first time, against Norway; others will give the nod to Jarome Iginla's tension-busting one-timer that touched off the home team's 8-0 avalanche. But Norway didn't crush Canada's hopes four years ago; Norway is not the top team in the world; Norway isn't the rival against which, for four decades, hockey Canada has measured itself. And, of course, Norway isn't led by the man Canadians fear most.
Ovechkin, at 24, is the most captivating talent in the game, a stone-cold kneecapper with a safecracker's touch. He scored the go-ahead goal in Russia's knockout win over Canada at the Turin Olympics and has gotten better each year since; holder of back-to-back NHL Most Valuable Player awards, the Washington Capitals forward leads the league in points, is tied with Canada center Sidney Crosby with 42 goals and, stunningly enough, even has more assists than the league's premiere playmaker. In their last can-you-top-this? showdown, on Super Bowl Sunday, Ovechkin bested Crosby's two early goals with a hat trick and the decisive assist in a 5-4 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"He's got a shot that's dangerous from anywhere," Crosby says. "He can beat you with his moves or his hands, but just being unpredictable, that's his biggest thing. There are games we played in the playoffs [when] he scored a wrist shot from the blue line and then another where he was really wide and got a one-timer. We kept him to the outside the whole game, didn't even think he had a chance, and all of a sudden it's in the back of the net. You can feel like you're playing a perfect game and all of sudden it's one shot and it's in. He's just dangerous."
Still, it's not just his touch that makes Canada nervous. Hair matted to his skull, a what-me-worry grin belying impeccable technique, Ovechkin looks more like he crawled out of a cave than from some Beltway duplex. Hurling himself into the glass after scores, thriving on attention, mischief and mayhem, he resembles no one so much as Max from Where the Wild Things Are powered, though, by a supercharged motor that leaves peers grasping for metaphor.
"Alexander's energy is phenomenal; he's like a nuclear power plant," says Russia's coach, Vyacheslav Bykov.
"He's atomic," says Russian veteran Sergei Fedorov. "Obviously he's the best player in the world the last two years, probably gearing up to get a third [MVP award]. What can you say? He's a very powerful young man with a lot of talent and a crazy, crazy shot."
"It just doesn't seem like there's much that he can't do," says Team USA center Chris Drury, recalling a non-highlight film sequence against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden. "He was forechecking, didn't even have the puck, and he was able to get to one corner, knock our guy down, get to the other corner and knock our D down and then get to the middle. He almost beat the puck to all three places, and still had enough energy to knock all three of our D down, and then continued on to play another 30, 40 seconds. I know everything he does with the puck, but just the pure strength in his legs, his capacity to play at that level for a minute, minute and a half, is to me amazing."
It's hard, of course, for Canadians to admit that Ovechkin is the best right now.
He isn't Canadian, first off, and to hockey purists his showmanship feels more NBA than NHL. Much of their reluctance, too, stems from the fact that Kid Canada bested Ovechkin in their lone playoff series, and last year became the youngest captain to win the Stanley Cup. Sure, Ovie's spectacular, but Sid wins, eh?
Thursday night was just one more sliver of evidence: Crosby's clutch score in the shootout gave Canada its 3-2 win over Switzerland; Ovechkin missed two of his three chances in Russia's 2-1 shootout loss to Slovakia.
But as Crosby says, Ovechkin is far too unpredictable -- and it's far too early -- to pin any "winner/loser" label on him yet. Hell, after five years, puck-heads still haven't nailed even his hockey lineage.
Ovechkin's game doesn't easily line up with that of greats like Maurice"Rocket"Richard or Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. Like Bobby Orr, he's sui generis; "great" doesn't quite do the job of capturing the essence.
"He's the most dynamic player to come into the league since Orr and the most dynamic forward to come in the league since the Rocket," says Orr's former coach and general manager, Harry Sinden. "He's an unbelievable player."
One reason for the disbelief is that Ovechkin's qualities are asymmetric in hockey terms; scorers aren't usually hard hitters, hard hitters don't usually score in bunches, and few of either transmit such transparent joy in both. On Tuesday, Ovechkin's line against Latvia was typical -- two goals, one gratuitous shove that sent an unsuspecting Latvian sprawling. Last February, he and Crosby engaged in a famous tussle that ended with Crosby's helmet knocked off and Ovechkin flapping his arms like a chicken. Crosby found Oveckin's behavior "disrespectful," but Ovechkin calls the incident "just emotion."
Then he pauses and adds, "But it was good emotion."
Told that Crosby believes he has been "lining me up" -- waiting for the moment when Crosby's head is down so he can lay him out -- Ovechkin grins and says, "No, I just try to hit everybody. Him or different guy: It's a hockey game. It doesn't matter who's in front of me. It is what it is."
Crosby, of course, is for many Ovechkin's polar opposite, not merely a polite, clean-cut, nice guy, but the apotheosis of Canadian hockey values like strength, toughness, selflessness. It's often said that Crosby and Ovechkin are hockey's Magic and Bird, but for the moment, the rivalry more resembles that of NBA centers Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the aficianado's player who wins titles versus the outsized star with near-cartoonish gifts who makes the game accessible to the most casual viewer.
"Crosby plays the game the way it should be played," says Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry.
Ovechkin? He's tough, Cherry says, but needs to take responsibility for his head-hunting by fighting. That, too, it seems, is the Canadian Way.
"Ovechkin's like a runaway horse; he's a semi-renegade," Cherry says. "He has no fear of anybody. But again, he doesn't drop the gloves. He doesn't back up what he does. I've said it before: There's some guys in the league just waiting for him to get in those trolley tracks and then there'll be no mercy."
Maybe. But for Crosby, anyway, Ovechkin leaves him more puzzled than angry.
As with Sinden, when Crosby talks about the Russian it's as if he's wrestling with an idea that is just beyond his ken. He giggles as if talking about a particularly vexing child. That media and fans pair them, pit them against each other, divide themselves along pro-Alex and pro-Sidney lines may be great marketing -- especially because it never seems manufactured -- but it's not something that Crosby revels in.
"I'm a traditionalist when it comes to hockey; he's completely different,"Crosby says. "We're totally opposite, I think. But I still have respect for what he does. There are still some things I disagree with, but that doesn't mean that I feel like I have to say it. I don't. It's just the way it is.
"I'm looking to play the best game I can and if they want to talk about something, I hope it's that I scored a hat trick and that I played a great game," he continues. "I don't need the build-up and the postgame junk. Trust me, I could go a lot easier without it, but that's just the position we're in and that's what we deal with, and it's easy for that to happen."
Now, of course, the build-up will reach mammoth proportions. If and when Canada and Russia meet in the medal round, the stakes will be huge. The Canadian psyche -- like that of all people and nations that decide they have something to prove -- seems particularly fragile these days, what with the chest-beating commands from politicians and team officials to Own The Podium, the thundering insistence that hockey is Our Game.
Canada used to pride itself on being too smart, too balanced to worry about such matters. Let the U.S. or Soviet Union posture about being No. 1, went the collective stance. We'll finish third or ninth and live our quiet proud lives in our enlightened, gorgeous cities above the fray. In its generosity of spirit, its embrace of the obscure and minor, Canada was perhaps the ideal Olympic host, summer or winter.
But these Games have felt different from the start. There was the poet at the opening ceremony sneering that Canadians say "Zed" instead of Z. There was that constant needy drumbeat about who would win the first-ever gold on home soil. And there has been, most of all, the feeling that no other sport matters, really, when compared to men's hockey; that Canada must win or the Vancouver Games will be considered an outright failure.
Crosby remembers watching the 2006 loss to Russia in Turin from his home in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. "It was tough," he says. "I knew the expectations and how much people wanted gold and, especially, it was Russia. Everyone knows how big that rivalry is. It's not easy to lose to any team, but that's a rivalry game. That's tough to watch, because we've all been there. We've all lost those tough games. I felt bad and, when talking about the Olympics, I knew for the next four years that's what everyone would go back to. That's the measuring stick."
Ovechkin was in the penalty box, hopping and banging on the glass, when that victory over Canada ended. "It was all so funny and our country was so happy about it," he says. "It was great fun."
He looked then, as he did on Tuesday, like the king of the Wild Things yelling, "Let the wild rumpus start!"
And so, at last, it has.