They are the two most recognizable names in the game, and they have gone in distinctly different directions during their five years in the NHL. Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin may have entered the league at the same time, in 2005, but they have done for the NHL and their countries what few players have done for the game since Gretzky retired in 1999.
Ovechkin is two years older, but their careers and paths have forever been overlapping. However, whereas Ovechkin has developed into the most dynamic and exciting player in the game, Crosby has developed into something equally special – a winner.
They first met at the World U20 Championship in 2005. It was Ovechkin’s third U20 tournament and Crosby’s second. Ovechkin helped Russia to gold in 2003 when he was just 17, but a year later, Russia wasn’t much of a factor and Crosby and Canada lost gold to the U.S.
In 2005, Canada and Russia met for gold, but Ovechkin was banged around by Canada early and sat on the bench most of the game with a bad shoulder. Crosby had a lone assist, but Canada waltzed to a 6-1 win.
That game took place halfway through the NHL’s lockout season, so when both players joined their teams for training camp that fall, fans around the world anticipated a rivalry that was destined to last the next 15 or 20 years.
Crosby and Ovechkin were hands down the two best players in the game during their rookie seasons. The 20-year-old Ovi had 52 goals and 106 points and won the Calder Trophy while the 18-year-old Crosby set a record as the youngest player to reach 100 points in a season (102 to be exact).
The next year belonged to Sid the Kid who won three major individual awards – the Art Ross, Hart, and Lester B. Pearson. He was clearly the face of the league and the best player in the game. But, amazingly, he wasn’t named to Team Canada for the Turin Olympics while Ovechkin, of course, was named to Team Russia.
Since then, Ovechkin has been the dominant player in the NHL, no question. He scores highlight reel goals seemingly every week, and his list of personal awards has accumulated: twice he has won the Rocket Richard Trophy; three times the Lester B. Pearson/Ted Lindsay Award; twice the Hart Trophy. But for all this glory, he has never taken the Washington Capitals past the second round of the playoffs.
Crosby, on the other hand, has led the league in scoring only once in his five seasons, but he was named Pittsburgh’s team captain in 2007, at 19 the youngest captain in league history. He led the Pittsburgh Penguins to game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2008, losing to Detroit, and the next year, same scenario, he took the team to victory, becoming the youngest player to captain his team to the Cup.
Along the way, in one of the most memorable playoff series in many years, he bested Ovechkin in a classic series that went seven games. The coup de grace, however, came at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver when Canada swamped Russia 7-3 in the quarterfinals en route to gold. Neither player was a factor in that game. Indeed, Ovechkin was more or less invisible throughout the Olympics, and Crosby was not a factor except for two exceptional moments. He scored the shootout winner against Switzerland in the Preliminary Round, and, of course, he scored the golden goal at 7:40 of overtime in the gold-medal game.
In short, the two players have carved out reputations that are significantly different. Crosby has become a leader. He isn’t the most dominant player in the stats pack (although he tied for the NHL lead this past season with 51 goals), but he has become the rarest of all players, a player who knows how to win the big game and play his best at the critical moments.
Ovechkin is the most exciting and skilled player in the world, but for all his individual brilliance, he hasn’t shown an ability to raise the game of his teammates or to lead a team to victory. Brilliant, yes; but a winner? No. At least not yet.
And so, after five years of pro hockey we look back and see two distinct sets of achievements. Crosby has Olympic gold and a Stanley Cup, and a few individual trophies from the NHL. Ovechkin has a World Championship gold from 2008, a U20 gold from 2003, and many more NHL trophies. Would Crosby trade places with Ovi? Never. Would Ovi exchange what he has for what Crosby has won? You better believe it.
To date, advantage Crosby, but as both players enter their prime, the biggest winners are the fans, who have many more years of debates, cheers, and boos ahead of them as they watch the two greatest players do their thing. In a few more weeks, they get back at it. Year six. What will happen next? Can’t wait to find out!