Saturday, October 28, 2006

Canadians are proud and protective of hockey, a sport they consider their national heritage. Praise lavished on athletes born outside the country is rare and guarded.

All of which makes the Alex Ovechkin phenomenon somewhat hard to understand. The youthful Russian is treated like a rock star whenever he comes to Canada, be it Montreal, Ottawa or Toronto in the east or Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary in the west.

It is hard to understand, that is, until the connection finally clicks — the Washington Capitals’ left wing plays the game like a Canadian, physically, skillfully, in a determined manner and with a decided flourish. To a Canadian, he just as easily could have been born in Moose Jaw instead of Moscow.

“He couldn’t be more popular than he has been up here,” Washington general manager George McPhee said yesterday before the Caps’ game in Edmonton. “It’s amazing. He was on the cover of every newspaper in Vancouver this weekend; his face is on TV so much you’d think he was running for office. That’s all people talked about — Ovechkin. It’s amazing.”

It may be something with Vancouver, also. In June Ovechkin was in the city to receive the NHL’s rookie of the year honor and be voted to the first all-star team and all-rookie team, all firsts for a Caps player. He then donned his Caps jersey and helped greet Washington draft picks as they made their way to the stage. Nothing like that had ever been done, and the reaction was enthusiastic.

“It’s like the 21-year-old is a Pied Piper,” Ben Kuzma wrote Friday in the Vancouver Province. “Quick, somebody call [commissioner] Gary Bettman. Get this guy’s mug on billboards. And change the ridiculous schedule that has the phenom visiting here just once every three years.”

It’s the way he plays, like a teenager turned loose on a go-kart that has no brake. The only way he knows how to stop is to run into or through somebody or something while displaying a high degree of skill and courage. To a Canadian, that’s something to cheer wildly about no matter where a player was born.

“For want of a better description, [he] seems to be an absolute matinee idol, a rock star, however you want to phrase it,” McPhee said. “No one’s more popular. Now there’s more television exposure and access to athletes that we had in 1994 [when Vancouver played for the Stanley Cup], so now there’s even broader appeal.

“He is a kid who always does the right thing. He respects the game. He respects his teammates. He respects the referees.”

That was never more evident than Friday night against the Canucks. Ovechkin was called for diving, a hugely embarrassing moment for any athlete. He hung his head, muttered a few choice words (no doubt in Russian) and skated to the penalty box. No whining, no attempt to humiliate the officials.

“That’s the difference between Ovechkin and [Pittsburgh’s Sidney] Crosby,” said a Canadian who was at the game but asked not to be identified. “Crosby would have whined about that, turned it into a miniseries. Canadians won’t put up with that kind of attitude.”

At GM Place in Vancouver or nearby Burnaby, where the Caps practiced Friday, the team’s presence created a circus atmosphere; in years past, taxi drivers wouldn’t have stopped if anyone were waving $10 bills.

“I think the guys are aware of what’s happening,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who had never seen Ovechkin in person. “Everybody’s heard about him. Everybody’s seen him on TV.”

Said Vancouver captain Markus Naslund to the Vancouver Sun: “He can do all the stuff at full speed that other guys can do at half speed. Plus, he’s got the natural scoring touch that’s a God-given gift.”

Said Caps coach Glen Hanlon in the same article: “This is what we’re selling. People see [in Ovechkin] somebody that approaches every day like he’s 10 years old playing hockey. When you see him walk into a room, it kind of reminds me of a peewee player on his way to his first travel tournament. He brings that attitude every day.”

Wrote the legendary Red Fisher in the Montreal Gazette: “Challenge him and he takes on all comers. What he brings to the game — and it’s reserved for the very few of those blessed with a special talent — is courage. He can’t be intimidated. Get in his way and he runs over you.”

Sort of a Mark Messier with hair.

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