Last night, the Washington Capitals won their first ever Stanley Cup. Now, as Rangers fans and division rivals, that may rub some of us the wrong way. However, what it did was save us from one of the most irritating and stupid media narratives; that Alex Ovechkin couldn’t win a Cup.
When it comes to sports media, it is their job to create narratives for a couple of reasons. First, they need to appeal to the emotional needs or wants of its readership. Second, it needs to craft a relatively simple through line that can help sum up a player, team or season. However, this one is so catastrophically stupid that I found myself routing for Ovechkin to deliver us from this nonsense.
The theory is pretty straight forward: Ovechkin is too selfish and flashy to be a leader. He is all about his own glory, his own stats and ultimately is better suited as a passenger than a driver. Leave the captaining to soft spoken, quiet leaders like Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby. They more traditionally fit the mold of what makes a leader a leader.
Now, in fairness, the Caps’ track record has not helped, here. This year was the first season they got out of the second round during the Ovechkin era, despite winning three President’s Trophies since 2010. Watching NBC last night, all of a sudden Ovechkin went from a punch line to powering through and overcoming the “adversity” of those previous losses.
The reaches and mainstream acceptance of his narrative actually got so bad at one point that I was sitting in a locker room talking to a guy I skate with about the Caps/Lightning series. This guy used to play D1 hockey. He’s been around the game his entire life. He knows it, he lives it, he understands it. I told him I liked the Caps’ chances and said I would love to see Ovechkin get his Cup. He replied to me “Yeah, he’s a great player, but he is really not much of a leader. I don’t think he has what it takes to win a Cup”. I was floored.
Lazy narratives are easy to latch onto and let morph your objective perception. Everyone is not a winner/leader/champion until they are, all of a sudden. Years and years of perceived futility can be erased in one post-season. Just look at Alex Rodriguez in 2009. A choker and selfish cry baby until he was carrying the Yankees to a championship.
It is certainly possible that Ovechkin had to mature into a player that would be capable of winning the Cup. He may have been more concerned with his own stats and legacy to truly commit to a team game. He may have looked in the mirror one morning in 2017 and said “holy ****, if I don’t change the way I approach the game, I’m going to go my entire career without a Cup” and made those changes. Only Ovechkin himself knows that answer.
If sports media members want to blast Phil Mickelson or Roger Federer or Lennox Lewis for never achieving their potential (all of them did, obviously, they never bother talking about individual players who don’t live up to the hype), be my guest. In individual sports, it’s all on you. You thrive or fail all on your own out there and there is no one else to blame. In a team sport, however, and hockey specifically, you as a member of the media can create a lasting impression about who a player is, what their capabilities are and how they should be valued based on a guy playing less than 1/3 of the game.
I guess, as a Rangers fan, I look at this type of situation through the lens of Henrik Lundqvist. I don’t believe for one second that he has been mistreated by the hockey media the same way Ovechkin has in terms of characterizing his legacy. However, this antiquated notion that in order to be a great player, you have to win a Cup (usually multiple Cups), absolutely robs fans the joy and unique experience of watching a historically great player grace their ice. The NHL didn’t have its first Draft until 1963 and had under 25 teams in the league until 1993. It’s a lot easier to win a bunch of Cups under those conditions.
I don’t really have much of a point to this, honestly. Just kind of ranting on a Friday morning. Really, what I suppose I am trying to say is that it feels like the most basic snake-oil salesmanship on behalf of the media when they rob fans of the ability to watch a future first ballot Hall of Famer for what he brings on the ice. Sports narratives ebb and flow, but to vilify or marginalize the legacy of a truly great player is only harmful to the sport and its fandom. As a result, I found myself rooting harder than I ever would have thought I would for Ovechkin to win. I just hope that this ridiculous narrative can die a quick, merciful death. I’m not betting on it, though.