Alex Ovechkin stands out in hockey's culture because he does things his own way. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
By Stu Hackel
No one should be surprised that Alexander Ovechkin has, once again, commanded the spotlight -- at least briefly -- during the NHL lockout. Ovechkin has many talents and grabbing attention is one of them. He's been as charismatic a personality as hockey has ever seen and he's always relished standing apart, from his special on-ice abilities (which we hope are not on the wane), to his leaping, glass-crashing goal celebration, his yellow skate laces and his now-banned darkened visor. This is a one-of-a-kind specimen and we should accept no substitutes.
The thing with Ovie is, he's something of an iconoclast. He has been from the outset. Even before he was drafted by the Capitals, he came to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final with all the top prospects and, as league staffers fondly recall, he comported himself unlike any of his more reserved contemporaries, renting a stretch limo and hosting the other kids in an exploration of the Tampa Bay area. At the draft combine, when not in gym clothes, the others wore suits while Ovie was decked out in a body-hugging T-shirt, with unused suspenders hanging from the waist of his bright red jeans, his high-top shoes matching the color of his pants. He's been endearing, quick to smile, and a very good prankster regardless of the setting, like when he got the key to the city in Washington D.C. after winning the Hart Trophy in 2008. He declared himself "President" for the day and revised the District's traffic laws.
But, as with all iconoclasts, you've got to take the bitter with the sweet -- and increasingly there's been some bitterness, especially as Ovechkin's production has declined and the Capitals have underachieved. There was his unease with interim coach Dale Hunter last season, of course, their clash of styles suspected by some of leading to Hunter's resignation at season's end.
Earlier, he was suspended in January by the league for charging and a head check -- and here's Brendan Shanahan's video. (Hey, remember those? Bet you'd rather watch videos of Shanny than videos of Gary Bettman and Don Fehr.) Ovechkin responded by pouting and excusing himself from the All-Star Game. It angered some that he took a beach vacation instead of entertaining the fans in Ottawa and around the world. They insisted that no one should be bigger than the game, but, well, that's Ovie. He says and does what he wants and damn the consequences. He's no one-dimensional guy, he's not prone to vanishing into the wallpaper. That can be a bit hard for the conservative hockey community to swallow, especially when it comes from someone who we'd prefer was only associated with fun and excitement.
And that brings us to the growing bad feeling between players and owners. Like a lot of his teammates, Ovechkin was probably excited about starting anew with Adam Oates replacing Hunter, and perhaps reclaiming some of his on-ice supremacy. He was training hard. When he passed his physical this week for Dinamo Moscow, the team doctor Valery Konov said Ovie had been "seriously preparing himself for the season" and was in "above average" condition -- except for missing a front tooth. "But he can play without it," the doc informed the world.
[In his first game for Dinamo Moscow on Thursday, Ovechkin assisted on a late game goal in a 7-2 win over Dinamo Minsk. He delivered this hit on the backcheck, forcing a turnover..
....and wore number 32 on his dark blue home jersey. Replicas of the jersey were reportedly selling for 11,000 rubles, about $353, at the rink. That's about twice what a normal replica jersey costs.]
Ovie's NHL career, however, is on hold. That's where he intended to play this season; that's where he wanted to be. He didn't want to be back in Russia and he's obviously not happy about being locked out. Few players have been as outspoken as Ovie in recent days. “If the (NHL) continues to insist on their (demands), then it will take a full year,” Ovechkin told Pavel Lysenkov of Sovetsky Sport on Monday.“We're not going to give in, either. Then I will spend the entire season in the KHL. That's the reality.”
Just as significant, if not more, he has no stomach for surrendering any of the current 13-year, $125 million deal he signed in 2008. In a conference call with The Washington Post and The Washington Times on Wednesday, Ovechkin continued with that line of thought. “Of course, I said it before, before I sign contract, that if the league decides to cut our salaries, cut our contracts for what they want, I don’t know how many guys are coming back,” he said, perhaps trying, in his own way, to put pressure on the negotiations. “We sign contract before. Why they have to cut our salary and our contracts right now? They sign us. [Now they] want to cut it. I think it’s a stupid idea and stupid decision by NHL, Bettman and the guys who work there.”
“It’s not us who stop the NHL, it’s the league stop the NHL, the Bettman and the owners stop NHL,” he continued. “They don’t play hockey, they don’t block the shots, they don’t fight, they don’t get hit. They just sit in a box and enjoy the hockey.”
His most inflammatory statement was issued for Russian consumption, to Russian news agency RIA Novosti (reprinted in The Washington Post) on Wednesday after signing his KHL deal. Ovie said, “As to the future, it will depend on what kind of conditions there will be in the NHL with the new CBA. If our contracts get slashed, I will have to think whether to return there or not. I won’t rule out staying in the KHL, even past this season.”
That set off all sorts of alarms since, after all, it means Ovechkin would consider jumping his NHL contract.
Legally, as everyone agrees, he can't do that. After Alexander Radulov walked away from the year he had left on his Predators contract in 2008 to play with Salavat Yulaev Ufa (which led to a nice-sized international hockey feud), the NHL and KHL reached an understanding to prevent player poaching. "The NHL and the KHL have signed a 'Memorandum of Agreement' where the centerpiece of that agreement is mutual respect of contracts," wrote IIHF Communications Director Szymon Szemberg in an email to Red Light on Thursday. He added, "In a normal -- non-lockout situation –- the current (post-Radulov case, as of 2009) IIHF Transfer Regulations do not allow playing under conflicting contracts."
Of course, this is Ovechkin we're speaking about, one of the highest profile players in the world, certainly the top name among all Russian skaters. Would the KHL actually uphold the rules and not permit this top attraction from staying in their league? "The current KHL-NHL Memorandum of Agreement precludes what Ovechkin is suggesting from happening," a KHL spokesman affirmed to me via email. "The only possible exception would be if Ovechkin worked out a separation agreement with the Capitals regarding his existing contract, which is a matter that would be between Alexander and his current club."
So unless Ted Leonsis is somehow persuaded to let Ovie stay with Dinamo Moscow post-lockout -- fat chance of that, you say -- he'll be pulling on the star-spangled Caps sweater when the NHL returns.
Legalities aside, however, Ovie's outburst produced a fair amount of reaction because, well, it's Ovie and what he says always sparks discussion. "While I'm sure his comments are hyperbole," wrote Greg Wyshynski at Yahoo's Puck Daddy, "let's take them at face for a second. I find it impossible to reconcile the NHLPA's message of 'the people that suffer the most are the fans' (S. Crosby, 2012) and 'they're the ones that suffer from [a lockout]' (J. Reimer, 2012) with Ovechkin pondering if he'd turn his back on those very fans if his $9 million base salary is reduced under a new CBA. At this point in the lockout, it's completely counterproductive to the NHLPA's messaging."
Perhaps. But there is another way to look at it and that's Ovechkin's legitimate frustration toward the lockout -- just like that of the fans who say they won't watch the NHL anymore, won't buy NHL merchandise any more, and claim they'll boycott league sponsors if the NHL loses all or even part of the season. The point is, there's a lot of anger out there and it's not just confined to the fans. The players are angry, too, and they have a right to be (so do owners, agents, sponsors, broadcasters, arena workers, restaurant owners, parking attendants and guys like me who really don't like writing and talking about this stuff). The optics of Ovie's threat might not be great, but I think Wyshynski's initial thought is the right one. It's hyperbole. It's angry, bitter Ovie spouting off, a little petulant, not really weighing his words fully before issuing them, and maybe not caring whether he does. He's wrong about the facts -- he can't play in the KHL after the lockout; no one with a valid NHL contract can -- but he's not wrong about his feelings.
He's a spontaneous guy, this Ovechkin. That's one of the things that makes him a great hockey player when he's at his best. It may not make for good diplomacy, but iconoclasts don't always consider the niceties of their pronouncements. With iconoclasts, you have to take the bitter with the sweet.
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