On the northeastern coast of the Black Sea sits the Bolshoy Ice Dome, a 12,000-seat concrete, glass and metal structure built to resemble a frozen drop of water. With a name that conjures the famed Russian theater, the arena will stage Sochi's most marvelous show, the men's ice hockey tournament. And at center ice, a year from now, the spotlight will shine brightly on a native star, one who has come to represent Russian hockey.
It's already been settled; barring injury, star winger Alex Ovechkin will play in Sochi. Though the NHL has not officially announced its intention to let its players participate in the 2014 Games (an official from the NHL decision is expected by the season's end), the 27-year-old Washington Capitals captain has already received permission for his team's owner, Ted Leonsis, to go represent his home and host country next year.
"I just think it's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him to have something played in Russia," Leonsis said last month. "He's going to be a torchbearer and it's very important to him and his family. Who am I to get in the way of him wanting to fulfill that?"
Ovechkin has long voiced his desire and intention to play in these Games, in particular, to actualize the dream of victory on home soil. Sidney Crosby did it in Vancouver, fortifying his legend by scoring that gold-medal-winning goal for Team Canada in 2010. Now, it's Ovechkin's shot. The Russian All-Star would likely bristle at the comparison, but he and Crosby have been inextricably tethered since they broke into the NHL in 2005. But here, seven years later, Crosby has won a Stanley Cup, a gold medal and continues to dazzle on the ice when he has been healthy enough to skate.
Meanwhile, the winding path of Ovechkin's career hasn't seen quite as much success. He's never made it past the second round of the NHL playoffs, and over the last three years, he has brought less offensive punch on the ice. During his first five seasons, he averaged 53.8 goals and broke the 50-goal mark four times; in the last two seasons, he has failed to break 40. At this point, with just two goals in the first 10 games this season, Ovechkin only shows glimpses of what he used to be.
It's difficult to pinpoint when his game perhaps began to fray, but a popular starting point is Vancouver. From his rookie year in 2005 up until the 2010 Games, Ovechkin had 261 goals in 378 games (an average of .69 goals per game), 40 more than thenext highest scorer in that same timeframe, countryman Ilya Kovalchuk. He led the league in points in 2008, and won the Hart Trophy in '08 and '09.
Ovechkin came in the Olympic year with high expectations and at the top of his game, but in Vancouver, he and his whole team were largely ineffective. He finished the tournament with just two goals, both scored in Russia's 8-2 whooping of Latvia. And against Canada in the quarterfinals, Ovechkin led the entire Russian team in ice time (21:15), not that anybody watching would have been able to tell. The Great 8 was essentially invisible in that game, as the Canadians trampled over Russia, 7-3, chased them off the ice in almost embarrassing fashion.
For the first time in their Olympic history, Russia didn't even make it to the medal round. It left the proud hockey nation with a bitter taste in their mouth, and Ovechkin, normally a fun-loving goofball off the ice, was caught going all Hollywood celeb on the paparazzi, shoving his hand in the lens of a fan filming him outside the Sochi House just after the game.
"It's hard to revive him after that loss," his mother, Tatiana, told Russian news Sovetsky Sport that spring.
In the 185 games he's played since the Vancouver Olympics, Ovechkin has scored just 80 goals (for an average of .43 goals per game). He's been slammed with suspensions for overly aggressive hits, and he's on his third coach in three years. Ovechkin tried to work on his lackadaisical defensive game, but then criticized for his diminishing offense. Now, asked to move from left wing to the right. And as his numbers continue to drop, more and more, people are asking, "What's wrong with Alex Ovechkin?"
So, perhaps Sochi gives him the perfect stage to answer. It very well could become the defining moment of Ovechkin's career, where he proves his critics wrong and revives a stagnant game back to the levels that made fans leap out of their seats instead of scratch their heads. Or it could be the place where the hockey world simply stops asking.
No one knows for sure how it will all go. And at this point, it's not even a sure thing the NHL will let its players play. The NHL and the players' association will meet with the IOC and International Ice Hockey Federation this month to begin negotiating an agreement to include NHL players. A report from TSN's Bob McKenzie calls it "just short of a foregone conclusion" that the league will let the players go. But it's not quite there yet because from a business standpoint, the mid-season hiatus does hurt the league, which stops for a little more than two weeks and receives no monetary compensation from the international tournament. The arenas lay dormant and teams run the risk of seeing their star players injured.
"[A] better deal doesn't mean a better monetary deal," McKenzie writes. "It means better access to the players - the use of images, the use of video, as well as accommodation and tickets. The NHL and the NHLPA [want to be] treated like it was a major sponsor for the Olympics, getting no more or no less than a lot of sponsors would get."
It's imperative that all sides come to some agreement, simply because it would be a massive loss to the league, the Games, the fans, the players and hockey itself, if the Olympics went without NHLers. It would throw all of the momentum hockey built from the Vancouver Olympics right off a cliff. Recall the gold medal match-up between Team USA and Canada, a game of all NHL players, a game that 1 in 3 Americans with televisions tuned into, one that turned Sidney Crosby and Ryan Miller into household names. Why would the league or the IOC want to lose that?
NBC announced this week that all of Team USA's men's and women's hockey games will be aired live on television next February. It's a bold programming step (given the nine-hour time difference) for a network that has historically centered its coverage around the figure skating ice. It would be a shame to lose that momentum, to deny Crosby and the Canadians the chance to defend, to deny Team USA a shot to atone for that 2010 loss and go for their first gold medal since 1980. It would be a shame not to afford the Russians NHLers the same hope and excitement that the Canadians got to experience in 2010.
But at least one will go, no matter what. Alex Ovechkin will be there, in Sochi, there is little question about that. But what the hockey world will wonder for the next year is whether that means anything anymore.