Letter to Ovechkin

After a tough season, can #8 get back on track in Germany?

08-05-10
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Quebec City Quebec Canada
Will Alexander Ovechkin win the gold in Germany as he did in Quebec City? Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images

Dear Alexander,

You don't know me. Five years ago at the IIHF World Championship in Austria, I asked you a series of fan-submitted questions for IIHF.com. I still laugh about your response to whether Pavel Datsyuk or you triumphed in a FIFA soccer video game: “It's a secret!” Since then, it's been an occasional question in a post-game scrum or at the NHL Awards. That's the extent of our journalist-player relationship.

But I've watched you in every IIHF tournament you've played since 2004 – and, I should mention up front, it's great to see you show up year after year, considering players of far lesser stature don't always do the same. And of course, I see you in the NHL. I figure all that entitles me to give you a little free advice. Because that's what journalists do.

Now, I can't predict what you're going to accomplish at the 2010 Worlds after Russia imploded in the Olympic quarterfinals and your top-seeded Washington Capitals got shockingly ousted by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

Yet I'm sure you're motivated to come away with a title in Germany after a string of team and personal disappointments this season.

My advice? Go play your game, be yourself, and stop thinking so much.

On face value, that sounds pretty conventional. Any sweaty player could have spewed that into a microphone and headed for the showers without thinking about it.

But think about it. Because from what I've seen, this year you've gotten away from all those principles. And it has hurt you big-time when it mattered most.

You've gotten too caught up in the end result (“gotta win the Olympics, gotta win the Cup”), instead of enjoying the process like you normally do when you're successful. That's why you took a step backwards this year.

“Step backwards”? That might seem like a harsh assessment of a 24-year-old who just recorded his fourth career NHL season with 50-plus goals, and already ranks with legends like Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy in terms of the speed of that accomplishment. Not to mention your career-high 59 assists: pretty good for someone who's known as a shooter rather than a playmaker.

But I, and many others, just didn't recognize the Ovechkin who showed up in Vancouver for the Olympics in February. Blowing off English-language reporters repeatedly, clashing with fans, walking around with a scowl colder than Siberian permafrost. It had to be by design. You wanted to win, probably even more than most of the players who participated in the biggest hockey tournament ever.

If that surly approach was what it took to be successful, so be it. However, it obviously wasn't. There wasn't any inherent shame in losing to a stacked Team Canada in a one-game showdown: the quarterfinal could have gone either way. Just like in 2006, when you beat Canada. Nobody came into the Vancouver Olympics with a guaranteed gold medal.

Yet for arguably the most skill-laden team in the tournament, the way Russia lost to Canada was unacceptable. Come on, 7-3?

It wasn't all your fault. But you, Alexander Ovechkin, are expected to set the tone when you play for Russia, and you let yourself get taken out of the quarterfinal early on by the entirely predictable Canadian strategy of “hit Ovechkin as often as possible.” Your teammates followed suit.

It was a time when you needed to respond with bodychecks of your own, draw a penalty, or adjust your game in other areas, and instead you were defeated mentally as well as physically. The game was over by the end of the first period, and everyone knew it. It was reminiscent of what happened in the 2005 World Junior gold medal game, when many of the same Canadians (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Sidney Crosby, Mike Richards) did exactly the same thing to you.

You have to be a physical player. Sure, you have to be smarter to avoid incidents like the NHL run-ins where you splattered Brian Campbell and Sergei Gonchar and were justifiably suspended. But don't shy away, as you often did after the Olympic break.

Some people are saying you need to be more serious in your approach. I disagree. Oh sure, in the off-season, go ahead and train hard. Train like you've been assigned to personally haul the Trans-Siberian Express from Vladivostok to Moscow.

But then, when the season comes, go have fun. Do your goal-scoring celebrations. Play with a smile on your face. Don't worry about what Don Cherry says or how many points Sidney Crosby gets or anything else. That's your way of winning. I don't see a full-fledged Steve Yzerman makeover in your future (i.e. going from Mr. 65-Goal Scorer and 155-Point Scorer in 1989 sans Stanley to Detroit's first Cup in 1996-97 as Mr. 85-Point Man Who Backchecks Better). You have to be yourself.

Oh yeah, and another thing.

You've pulled off amazing feats in the NHL, but I don't feel I've ever seen you at your absolute best in international competition. (And no, I'm not counting those World U18 tournaments.) Granted, you made the all-star team at the 2006 and 2008 Worlds, and you scored the goal that killed Canada in the 2006 Olympic quarterfinals.

But how about the 2007 World Championship in Moscow, when your team was favoured to take the gold medal on home ice and instead settled for bronze? Your response in that situation was not impressive. Eight games, one goal, two assists. You were clearly outshone by KHL teammates like Alexei Morozov, not to mention your sometime rival Evgeni Malkin. Something wasn't right for you mentally; you never seemed to get in gear. Much like the 2010 Olympics.

At the 2008 World Championship in Canada, Dany Heatley scored 12 goals to your eight. Now, no disrespect to Team Canada's all-time leading scorer, but there isn't a GM in the NHL or international game who wouldn't rather have you on his team than Dany Heatley. You were an all-star, you committed to the team game, and you won gold, but you could have produced more. Ilya Kovalchuk claimed the spotlight with his OT winner in the final.

Now, when the 2014 Sochi Olympics roll around, Alex, you will be 28 years old. Never mind that this is the age at which the old Soviet sports authorities considered it was all downhill. You will still be in your prime, and everyone will expect you to lead Russia to the gold medal.

However, since you've already publicly committed to playing in Sochi, regardless of NHL policy, why don't you just forget about taking your big old revenge on Canada until the time comes?

If you spend all your time visualizing how badly you want to stomp the Canadians, you and your teamates will in all likelihood succumb to the crippling pressure that has haunted the last two Russian host teams at the IIHF World Championships (2000: 11th place, 2007: bronze). A pressure that will be ramped up in Sochi with the whole world's eyes fixed on the Black Sea resort.

It's a mental thing when it comes to playing internationally. It's about where your mind is at. Because clearly, you have physical abilities that few others are granted.

Getting past whatever plagued you mentally in the Montreal series is essential. Remember what you said afterwards? "If you have a chance to score goals and you don't score, you just feel...Jesus...like, 'OK, next time you're going to score.' The pressure goes to your mind. It's pretty hard."

I have no personal stake in whether you win gold here in Germany and shatter Vladimir Petrov's single-tournament record of 34 points (1973), or finish last and go pointless with a -34 rating. I'm here to report on the tournament.

It's your career, and you've done pretty well with it so far. Just learn from what went wrong this season, much like Wayne Gretzky did after losing the 1981 Canada Cup final and the 1983 Stanley Cup final when he was in your age bracket. And then keep on shooting, hitting, and creating plays out of nothing, the way you did in your 65-goal campaign with Washington in 2008.

Starting here at the Worlds. You can help reestablish your position in the hockey world by what you do between now and May 23.

A final note: not everyone agrees that you're the world's best player. The two guys in Pittsburgh (especially the one whose initials aren't E.M.) have made some pretty compelling arguments for themselves at times. I'm inclined to give weight to your two straight Hart Trophies and the judgement of 64 percent of NHL players who tabbed you as the league's best in a recent ESPN The Magazine poll. Still, it's open to debate.

But at your best, you are unquestionably the most entertaining player on the planet right now, following in the high-flying tradition of Guy Lafleur and Pavel Bure.

There's a great scene in the movie Gladiator when Russell Crowe's Maximus character stands in the middle of the arena and cries out to the crowd: “Are you not entertained?” When you do the same (metaphorically speaking, or hey, even literally if you feel like it) here in Germany, I hope the general response is: “Yes, we are entertained.” Because hockey needs more pure showmen like you; we have enough good soldiers already.

Best regards,

Lucas Aykroyd

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