Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins are separated during a Feb. 22 game. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
Since the NHL ended the sabbatical that was the 2004-05 lockout season, the league has done everything but officially pit Alex Ovechkin against Sidney Crosby in a steel cage, falls-count-anywhere match to create a rivalry hockey could dine out on for decades.
Until last weekend, any enmity between the Penguins captain and Capitals cornerstone was believed to be more theoretical than actual. However, after the Penguins and Capitals played Sunday night, nobody doubts there’s a whole load of stink-eye going on between the two burgeoning superstars.
Now let’s see if the NHL can put its collective mouth where its money matchup is and promote Ovechkin and Crosby’s mutual distaste for one another as what it can and should be – the marquee individual showdown of any professional sport.
Crosby vs. Ovechkin works so well because the two players are polar opposites in virtually every respect. The former embodies the old-school, North American conservatism and aw-shucks humility that’s governed the NHL since its inception; the latter represents the European sizzle, flash and out-and-out joy of playing hockey that’s been in ridiculously short supply around these parts for just as long.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to appreciate both players for who they are at this stage of their careers. Although Ovechkin’s charm lured me into his fan base from the get-go, I still can marvel at Crosby’s preternatural hockey vision, tenacity and willingness to take on a leadership role at a young age.
That said, it’s my fond hope cooler heads fail to prevail here and the loathing between Crosby and Ovechkin gets amped up as much as legal guidelines allow.
I also hope to hear none of the “hockey is great precisely because it’s about the team, not the individual” lines that usually follow any 1-on-1 dust-up in the NHL. That sentiment may be true, but anyone who argues there is no place for personalities in the game clearly can’t come to grips with what it takes to promote and cultivate a professional sport in the modern era.
That self-constricting attitude is one of the reasons why the NHL’s marketers have been so handicapped in their duties all this time. Indeed, if you put hockey’s guardians in charge of burlesque parlors, the first things it would demand is (a) more clothing and (b) less “dancing.”
To the sport’s detriment, those old-timers got it all wrong. Just as there is room for Ovechkin’s ebullience alongside Crosby’s polish and politeness, so too is there room for some individuality among the group-theme fanatics.
So, I’m saying to hell with Federer vs. Nadal, and Kobe vs. LeBron, and Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir, and baseball’s steroid-free stars vs. its Alex Rodriguez/Barry Bonds Oversized Head Division.
To me, Sid vs. Alex is where it’s at – and the rest don’t even come close.
Their current clash of cultures only is in its infancy, but knowing there’s far more hate on the horizon makes it worth the emotional investment right now.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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