Watching "Miracle" the other day (for about the 500th time this offseason--withdrawal's a bitch) it struck me how much our ideas of Russian hockey players have changed since the Cold War era. Back then, the stereotype of Russian players and Russian teams was very strong; they were efficient, cold and ruthless, very talented, to be feared--the "Red Army". To some extent that reflected the tensions between America and Russia at the time, but it was also because Russia had a damn good hockey team. Russians were regarded as icy, expressionless, even frightening.
And then, at the end of the Cold War era, came Alex Ovechkin.
Energetic. Polarizing. Electric. Explosive. Ovechkin fit neither the stereotypes of the era in which he was born, or the stereotypes that had developed since. As he turns 26 today I've had trouble shaking thoughts of some statistical trends. Only one of the most prolific goal scorers of all time had his best season after the age of 25: Brett Hull. Only one of the sport's contemporary "superstars" has won a Stanley Cup with his original team after his first five seasons: Steve Yzerman.
The odds don't look good. Then again, Alex Ovechkin has never been one to stay beneath the trend line. He's a 50-goal player in an era when 50 goals is supposed to be nearly impossible--he's a power forward in an era when snipers lead the standings, and he's a set-'em-on-fire player in an era when Russians are not known as being ice-cold net killers but temperamental, streaky problem children, an era in which the hockey world is led by Don Cherry and veiled xenophobia in thinking that players in a certain hemisphere just don't have the grit for the game.
Stereotype: Russian hockey players are lazy or apathetic.
Kovalchuk signs a huge contract, his production takes a nosedive. Kovalev's streaky, lackluster play and attitude problems with Montreal. Even Alex Semin, branded by a former teammate this offseason with "he just doesn't care", a terrible epithet in this sport and one that will stick for awhile--whether it was deserved or not, it was heard--and that's the issue for most of this stereotype, it's a slowly-accumulated idea of a whole hockey culture. Whether or not it's true, Alex Ovechkin's intensity is beyond question. He skates like he might destroy everything between him and the net, and sometimes actually does. He swears in Russian when he misses the net. He comes up with the clutch goals, the overtime goals--Alex Semin aside, there is no question as to whether Ovechkin cares.
Stereotype: Russian players don't like contact and are afraid to get into the corners and dig out pucks.
Alex Ovechkin is the only player to statistically qualify as a true power forward for each of the last five seasons--he's been above 100 hits every season that he's played, twice over 200, has highlight-reel hits every year while still putting up phenomenal numbers. Once again, no question.
Stereotype: European captains don't lift the Cup.
Well. One more stereotype to break--and for a player who's embraced the NHL and had the NHL embrace him back, who hardly seems to notice boundaries as he's blowing by them--well, call me crazy, but I think it will happen. I don't think the clock's running out on him--he may or may not be entering the downturn of his scoring days, but he's almost definitely entering the peak of his career. So what if he'll be an outlier? He really always has been.
Brooks Laich should play this for Ovechkin. On his guitar.