I haven’t made any attempt to hide my enjoyment of Alex Ovechkin when writing about him in the past. I find his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s goal record to be one of the more fascinating aspects of the NHL right now. His metronomic yet stratospheric production over 17 years now is really astonishing, and we all do this sort of thing to be amazed from time to time. It also was near impossible to not share in the glee that Ovechkin clearly has every time he’s on the ice. Watch him, and you can still easily see the boy that first got on the ice 30 years ago or wherever it was. If we watch to feel like kids again, if only for a brief time, it really couldn’t be more on display than with No. 8.
ESPN’s Greg Whyshynski had a pretty thorough article yesterday about all the things Russian players of all ages are facing right now. It’s obviously not easy for players thousands of miles from home who have no say and are having god knows what thrust on them from all angles. But Ovechkin is the top name. And he should be. You can say that in some ways, he asked for it.
Ovie has never been shy about his relationship and affection for Vladimir Putin. I wouldn’t accuse Ovechkin of being stupid, but I also would suggest that the waters probably don’t run all that deep either. I’d like to say that Ovechkin has boiled it down to a simple equation. “President = Good,” which a fair few in this country have always done as well. I’d like to believe that Ovechkin never gave it much more thought than that, enjoyed getting attention and esteem from the most powerful person in his country. It would be hard not to be smitten by such a thing, but the politics are beyond him as they are with most hockey players from anywhere.
But as Wyshynski points out, Ovie has pushed his political beliefs to the fore previously. It was during the invasion of Crimea eight years ago. Now again, this could be Ovechkin just lapping up what he’s being fed, and as we can all attest, that’s hardly unique either. But it’s still taking a stand, and a frightening one.
When Ovechkin finally spoke about the current invasion, he never mentioned Ukraine or the Ukrainian people. It was a pawing at the easiest branch to reach for, that of simple and generic “peace.” That feels too simple, and given what he’s said in the past, you wouldn’t be remiss in thinking that Ovechkin simply doesn’t care about Ukraine or its citizens. We’ll almost certainly never know if that’s the case, but the doubt is enough to make one feel uneasy if not worse.
We can’t give a percentage or number for who’s to blame, but Putin certainly positioned himself next to Ovechkin to enhance his profile and Ovechkin certainly didn’t run from that, even taking pride in being an aid to him. All of those little gestures have helped lead to the delusions that Putin has that are causing the deaths of thousands. The gestures might have been small, the opinions and quotes innocent enough or uninformed at the time. The consequences now are gargantuan.
This isn’t a call for Ovechkin to be barred from playing in the NHL. Though I could certainly see where some think it should be at least discussed. But then where does that snowball stop rolling?
Still, when watching Ovechkin now, what fans want or wanted was a clear sign that Ovechkin thought the invasion of a sovereign nation was wrong, and they didn’t get it. It’s not for hockey players to weigh in on world matters, as they may be the least equipped to do so. But Ovechkin isn’t an ordinary player. And he’s not an ordinary Russian in the NHL. No one made him position himself so closely to Putin (though there is a school of thought he has to still do so now out of fear for relatives still in Russia, and we can’t dismiss that). No one made him hold up #SayNoToFacism signs in 2014. He opened this door.
What I do know is that last night, tuning into the Caps-Canes game for a bit where he scored goal No. 763, I didn’t feel the same way watching him. There are probably lots that don’t. It’s a shame, and Ovechkin can’t claim it has nothing to do with him.