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.
“How do you describe it? It’s a rivalry - that’s what it is,” Crosby said. “It’s intense. We compete. … Usually when we play each other we try to raise our game, and that’s difficult. The goal is to win the series; it’s not about him.
“Do I wake up hoping to see Ovechkin fail? No, I don’t. He’s a guy I play against. He’s a great player, and we’re competitive against each other. There’s an element there when the media puts us up against each other, and that’s just the way it is.”
Said Ovechkin with a mischievous grin: “He is superstar. Me - just like you guys.”
If their careers were to be defined as a boxing match, Ovechkin took Round 1 by collecting the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2006. Round 2 went to Crosby; in 2007 at age 19, he won the Art Ross Trophy as league scoring champion and both league MVP awards.
Ovechkin surged back in Round 3, sweeping four individual awards (Richard, Ross, Hart and Pearson) and compiling one of the best regular seasons in a generation with 65 goals and 112 points last year. Still, the Russian dynamo was forced to watch as Crosby and the Penguins reached the Stanley Cup Finals after his team was forced out in the first round.
Thanks to Carolina’s late rally against New Jersey in Game 7, Round 4 now awaits. Ovechkin had a better regular season, collecting a second straight Maurice Richard Trophy with a league-best 56 goals. Crosby finished behind both Ovechkin and teammate Evgeni Malkin in the scoring race.
But none of the personal achievements will matter after the next four to seven games. Casual sports fans don’t remember that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the 1985 NBA Finals MVP; they remember Magic’s Lakers beating Bird’s Celtics to avenge a loss in the championship series the previous year.
“If [Ovechkin] scores two goals but we lose the hockey game and Crosby has zero goals, we don’t win and [Ovechkin] doesn’t win,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “The determining factor is going to be what your team does and not what the individual does.”
One thing is for sure: Nearly everyone in the hockey community will be watching. This series is already being hyped as the biggest in the NHL in years. The media contingent at Kettler Capitals Iceplex for Washington’s practice Thursday was easily the largest of the season - and half the people reporting on this series were in Pittsburgh to watch the Penguins work out.
Once the teams come together, chaos could ensue. For the players, navigating the off-ice hysteria will be key to victory on the ice. But it is also a necessary evil for the future of the league.
That doesn’t make the saga any easier for the rest of the players to stomach.
“But it is awesome because it brings a lot of exposure to hockey and a lot of exposure to Washington and to Pittsburgh, which aren’t huge markets,” Caps captain Chris Clark said. “I enjoy answering the questions, but it does get long. Then again, if we didn’t have it, would we have the attention? I love it. It is two of the greatest guys going against each other.”
Added Caps defenseman Brian Pothier: “I think it is phenomenal for the league. … It will be our best players against their best players, and it will sort of be a dream matchup for the league and just hockey in general. All hockey fans are going to want to watch these games. If I was on a different team, I would definitely be tuning into this series.”