- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

In 2005, the NHL resumed play after a bitter year of labor strife that threatened to cripple hockey’s place in this country’s sporting conscience.

The league turned to a pair of precocious phenoms with no NHL experience as the players who would transcend a mostly regional sport and help it regain popularity. Four years into their careers, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby have met nearly impossible expectations and become the brightest stars in hockey.

Now they will meet in the postseason for the first time, and the formerly downtrodden league has its greatest chance to benefit from a bold marketing strategy.

“It is good for the league,” Ovechkin said. “Lots of attention, lot of talking about it - fans, the media. Everything is going well.”

Added Pierre McGuire, an analyst for NBC and Canadian sports network TSN: “This series is star power personified, just great for the game of hockey.”

Just having the sport’s two most-marketed stars meet in the postseason is a coup for hockey. It will be only the fourth time that the previous two MVPs have met in a playoff series.

Crosby vs. Ovechkin (or Ovechkin vs. Crosby, depending on geography) goes beyond statistics and hardware. It is about resonating with casual sports fans and attempting to grow and capture the imagination of those who haven’t followed the sport.

“I think it’s amazing to have the ability to market the game like this and to have a clash between two up-and-coming organizations and players that we have and they have,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “It makes for a great story and makes for great media, and it makes for a great product. If I was the NHL, the only thing I could have wished for was the conference final and not [the semifinals], but this is still an exceptional time for us to play, and hopefully all [of] hockey can capitalize on it.”

The NHL has not always been this lucky. The two most recognizable stars of the 20 years proceeding the Ovechkin-Crosby Era, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, never met in the playoffs. Their most significant interaction came in 1987 when they played on a line together in an international event, the Canada Cup, that did not seize the interest of American hockey fans.

Around that time, the NBA was enjoying new heights of popularity because the league’s signature stars, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, met three times with the league championship on the line. In a nine-year span, Johnson and Bird combined for eight titles, and the sport was never the same.

Hockey rivalries always have been team-driven - Boston vs. Montreal, Colorado vs. Detroit, Calgary vs. Edmonton. This might be the NHL’s best chance to build on the Magic-Bird type of competition the league hoped for when Ovechkin and Crosby were the No. 1 picks in the 2004 and 2005 drafts.

“It is always nice when the top players play against each other in the playoffs,” Ovechkin said. “Fans want to see [great] players.”

For four years, the tension has grown between the two faces of the sport and their teams. What once was a forced “rivalry” is now full-blown animosity, complete with critical words flung in each direction and a shoving match on national television.

Their personalities clash as much their styles. Ovechkin loves to celebrate his goals and embraces his reputation as a free-wheeling, fun-loving loose cannon. Crosby is more reserved, cut from the hockey establishment.

Story Continues →