- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2009

Maurice Richard once took his stick to the face of an opponent, then broke the jaw of an intervening linesman. A contemporary of Gordie Howe’s described him as “the most vicious, cruel and mean man I’ve ever met in a hockey game.”

There’s a bit of the Raging Bull in many great athletes. A horn, maybe. A snorting nostril. This is especially true in hockey, where every man on the ice wields a weapon. Alex Ovechkin certainly plays like that, plays with a fury that walks the line between hustling and homicide. Just as they used to “clear the track for Eddie Shack” in Toronto and elsewhere, it’s best to give the Ovechkin Express wide berth.

Earlier this week for the second time in three games, Ovie got ejected for being a little too bullish. Five days after pancaking the Sabres’ Patrick Kaleta against the glass, he knocked knees with the Hurricanes’ Tim Gleason and got slapped with a two-game suspension. The next one - you can count on there being a next one - will be even bigger.

It’s a measure of the league’s increasing cleanliness - not to mention Ovechkin’s worldwide celebrity - that the two episodes have attracted such attention. After all, neither was exactly a Dale Hunter Moment. Kaleta played in the very next game - and was thrown out in the first period for doing the same thing to the Flyers’ Jared Ross that Alex had done to him. As for Gleason, he was back in action a few shifts later and felt frisky enough in the late going to draw a 10-minute misconduct himself.

Ovechkin, as it turned out, was the worst for the wear, limping to the dressing room after the collision in Carolina and missing the last 2 1/2 periods. So he was none too pleased to learn of his suspension and skated around the Capitals’ practice rink Wednesday “like he was angry,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. Whether he will bring that anger with him the next time he suits up is anyone’s guess.

Folks are still trying to figure No. 8 out five years into his NHL career. He just doesn’t fit the mold of the modern hockey superstar. Most big scorers these days leave the heavy lifting - the physical part of the game - to others. But Ovechkin prides himself in being a total player, a guy who can dish it out as well as put the puck in the net. In his first game as a Cap, before he ever took a shot, he drove a Columbus Blue Jacket into the boards with such force that one of the brackets holding the glass in place came loose, causing a brief delay.

“I played with a guy like that in Calgary - Jarome Iginla,” Capitals captain Chris Clark said. “He didn’t want anybody standing up for him. If he had to drop his gloves, he did. A lot of skilled players back off if you get physical. Alex, he just comes right back at you. He gets the [opponent’s] number and looks to get a big hit on him later.”

More and more lately, there have been grumblings that Ovechkin is a dirty player. They grew loudest during the playoff series last season against the Penguins, when he went knee-to-knee with Sergei Gonchar in Game 4. In Pittsburgh, particularly, you would have thought Ovie was a cross between Marty McSorley and Ivan the Terrible.

But here’s the thing: Gonchar returned to battle for Game 7, assisted on the first goal and played solidly the rest of the way as the Pens won the Cup. For a couple of days, though, Ovie’s overzealousness was in the top 10 on the all-time list of Crimes Against Hockey Humanity.

We’ll probably never fully understand why elite athletes play the way they play, take the risks they take. Clearly, their internal wiring is different from ours. Self-preservation, after all, is a fairly universal instinct, and yet Ovechkin has never had any qualms about plowing into people at high speed, regardless of the potential danger to both parties. It’s like he’s missing a gene.

“Normal people wonder, ‘Why is genius a genius? Why do geniuses think the way they think?’ ” Boudreau said. “And it’s the same way with superstars. Why can one player hit a 100 mile-per-hour fastball out of the yard 50 times and others can only do it 20 times? It comes down to physical ability, sure, but it also takes mental toughness.

“And evidently for Alex, it works.”

You can speculate all you want about the timing of these two incidents, about what might have triggered them. Ovie had only recently come back from an injury - his first of any consequence as a pro - that kept him out for six games. Maybe the hits on Kaleta and Gleason were his way of saying to the rest of the league, “Don’t for one second think I’m vulnerable now. I’m still the same wild man I always was. Cross paths with me at your peril.”

It’s hard to imagine Ovechkin being anything but Ovechkin. He is who he is - for better (usually) or worse (those rare other times). But he can only be Ovechkin if he’s on the ice - as he’s surely smart enough to figure that out.

The NHL has drawn a line, and it’s asking Alex to stay on the right side of it… for the good of his career, for the good of his team. Does anyone really doubt that, once his anger has subsided, he’ll do exactly that?