By Allan Muir
Don Cherry's critics are going to have a field day with this one.
“Mike Milbury, I think, deserves a lot of credit here,” Cherry said on Toronto's Fan 590 radio station. “He’s not getting it. He’d come on and he ripped Ovechkin – he should be ashamed of himself, boom boom boom, and called him every name – and that’s when Ovechkin changed.
“And if you people have noticed – and I haven’t said it on Hockey Night in Canada, I might yet – have you noticed after a game, he just gives it a [fist] pump?” Cherry asked. “Have you noticed that? Have you noticed he’s got nice short hair, he doesn’t look like a wild man anymore? Adam Oates has got to him and said look, get off this celebrity thing. And what happened was, he was more of a celebrity than he was a hockey player. He forgot.
“And you know, when I went to the Bruins, that’s the same thing happened to me -- I got there, they had gold chains on and all that stuff, and they were celebrities there, they forgot to play hockey. They loved the life, they loved the travel, the only thing that got to them, they didn’t like the hockey. And you know, that’s what made Bobby Orr great, and I’ll tell you why: he had no businesses, he did nothing, all he wanted was to play hockey. And that’s the name of the game and Ovechkin’s right there now. He’s playing hockey instead of being a big-time celebrity.”
Now, I think most observers would argue that the patient guidance of Adam Oates led to both Ovechkin rediscovering his game and the surprising Southeast Division title won by the Caps. No, make that pretty much everybody would say that.
And most would argue that the last thing that Ovechkin worries about is what Milbury says about him. But then Ovie's old coach, Bruce Boudreau, got worked up more than once about things I'd written when I was handling the SI.com Power Rankings, so you never really know what will get under someone's skin or how they'll react to criticism.
So is there a kernel of truth here? Maybe, maybe not.
Where no one should argue with Cherry is his suggestion that Oates had to retrain Ovechkin's focus. It wasn't all about the change in position. Ovie was in lousy shape when he reported to Washington despite spending the lockout playing in Russia and anyone could see that there was little evidence of the passion that used to define his game. He was content to take the shortcut every chance he got and his game suffered.
Were there distractions? Sure seemed like it. And that's just part of the problem. Ask Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. It's not enough to be focused. You have to give the appearance of being focused. So maybe the haircut was just something that made it easier for Ovie to fit his head into his helmet...or maybe it was a sign that he was getting down to business.
Who knows. The point is, as silly as it sounds, Cherry might have a point. Whatever happened, Alex is back to being Alex. And Grapes is still Grapes. And hockey's better when both do what they do best.