Big shots, bigger rivalry

UPDATE: Crosby and Ovechkin carry their feud into the second round of the playoffs.

Big shots, bigger rivalry

UPDATE: Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, the NHLs two undisputed superstars, will meet in the second round of the playoffs this Saturday. There has been much chatter this year about the bad blood that runs between Pittsburgh’s boyish-looking captain and the flashy Russian star. They clashed and exchanged words in the regular season, fueling their rivalry, and questions among fans and analysts over who really is the greatest player in the game today. Maclean’s was at the duo’s final regular season match-up. Here’s our report on the Ovie-Sid showdown from earlier this year. 


(March 20, 2009)  It’s game day in the suddenly hockey-mad city of Washington, and the Verizon Center has been transformed into a shrine to Alexander Ovechkin. Fans wearing his red, No. 8 Capitals jerseys pour through the gates by the thousands. Inside, his gap-toothed, mop-headed likeness is everywhere, from the centre-ice video screens to the life-size cut-out in the concourse. The 23-year-old Russian superstar has helped lift his team into the third spot in the Eastern Conference and has single-handedly made hockey the sport to watch in the U.S. capital. This city can’t get enough Ovie.

But the Pittsburgh Penguins are in town on this Sunday afternoon, and there’s also a few Capitals jerseys sporting the No. 87 with “Crosby Sucks” on the back. Anti-Sidney Crosby signs are pressed against the glass and waved in the stands, from the clever (like a swimmers’ “No Diving” sign) to the crass (“Crosby is a douche”). It might surprise Canadian hockey fans who know Crosby as the sweet kid from Cole Harbour to see this kind of ardent reaction, but there’s a real rivalry here, and real animosity.

Washington and Pittsburgh have always had a stormy hockey relationship—and Pittsburgh has long had the upper hand. But with each team featuring one of the two greatest players in the game, “it’s gotten much, much worse,” says Sam Wold, a Caps fan who rallies the crowd by blowing his noisy plastic horn. This year, Washington, for a change, has had the better team and Caps fans insist Ovie is the best player in the world. So why, they wonder, is Crosby still the face of the NHL? That’s a question Ovechkin himself must be asking. In this case, the drama isn’t just in the stands. These are two players who clearly don’t like each other.

But strip away the hometown boosterism, and the question of “who’s better?” is far from settled. That Ovechkin has been having such a standout season only complicates the debate, say scouts, analysts and former coaches. Ask them who is tops today and you’ll get a lot of tortured humming and hawing. Sure, Ovechkin has size and a dazzling knack for goal-scoring, but Crosby is the one with the jaw-dropping playmaking ability. The only thing both players share in equal measure is an unmatched drive to win—and that has only stoked their rivalry, and their evident dislike for each other. For hockey, it could be the best thing that’s happened in decades.

Twenty years ago, the two greatest hockey players on earth were also two of the most humble guys on skates. Wayne Gretzky was at the end of his record-setting run in Edmonton, while Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux was beginning to put up dazzling numbers of his own. But these were also two friends who were quick to toss a wet towel on comparisons. “You never lie awake at night worrying about who’s better because where does that get you?” Gretzky said in 1988.

Things have changed. During a game late last month, tension between today’s reigning stars boiled over when Crosby gave Ovechkin a frustrated shove into the Washington bench. Ovechkin responded with an arm around Crosby’s head, ripping off his helmet, and ended things with a wave of dismissal as Crosby skated to the bench. By hockey standards, it was a minor skirmish—but between these two, it was like Muhammad Ali taunting Joe Frazier. In post-game interviews, the duo were models of passive aggression. “I don’t like it personally, but that’s him,” said Crosby, of Ovechkin’s antics. “It was a game moment,” Ovechkin said of the scuffle. “If he don’t like it, it’s his problem.”

The real surprise is that it took this long to bubble to the surface. The stage had been set when the duo entered the league in 2005. Unlike Gretzky and Lemieux, whose careers peaked a few years apart, Alex and Sid have been competing for the same honours from the get-go. Early on, it was Crosby who got much of the attention. Even before he’d stepped on the NHL ice, he had been anointed the future of the league. Gretzky himself declared Crosby “the Next One.”

While Crosby hasn’t put up Gretzky-like numbers, he hasn’t disappointed either. His greatest skill is his uncanny knack for seeing the ice and anticipating how plays will unfold—something he does in a game that is even faster than when the Great One played. Eddie Olczyk coached Crosby in his first few dozen games in the NHL. “The way he’s able to draw people to him and make plays through skates and through piles—he’s an unbelievable passer,” he says.

Ovechkin, on the other hand, puts pucks in the net like no one else. As of this week, Ovechkin has taken more than 420 shots on goal this season. That’s well over 100 more than the second most-prolific shooter—Carolina’s Eric Staal. Ovechkin isn’t just a trigger man, he is hockey’s equivalent of a machine gun. At six foot two, 220 lb., he’s been compared to Maurice Richard, or a higher-scoring version of Mark Messier. He is talented and fast, but also the type who’d just as soon go through you as around you. Again, the numbers tell the tale. This year, he’s already doled out over 200 hits, putting him seventh in the league.

Crosby, by comparison, is a smallish five foot eleven, 200 lb., and his game is markedly less physical. But he can hold his own. “Crosby doesn’t go around looking for the big hit, but he still has a physical element to his game,” says Doug MacLean, a former coach of the Florida Panthers and now an analyst at Sportsnet. His advantage comes back to his amazing leg strength, which makes him as hard to knock down as an NFL linebacker. “He can make plays when you think he’s down and out,” he says.

Both players have racked up awards, from the Art Ross Trophy (for top point-getter) to the Hart Trophy (for most valuable player). This year, they’ve been neck and neck in overall points scored. Ultimately, who you favour may say more about what you value in a player than it does about the players themselves. And there are bigger differences here than their skill sets alone.

Last January, the most memorable moment of the otherwise-dull All-Star weekend came when Ovechkin donned a Tilley Hat, Canadian flag and shades during the shootout contest. His antics were so downright goofy that some couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there was a hidden message. Ovechkin was handed his props by a fellow Russian (and Penguin), Evgeni Malkin, and started his performance by taking a big swig of Gatorade—a product endorsed by Crosby. Some wondered openly if it was a subtle jab at Crosby.

More likely it was just Ovechkin being Ovechkin. Mike Milbury, an analyst with Hockey Night in Canada, remembers last year calling out Ovechkin for playing “like a dog” in a game. Ovechkin answered back with an odd but amusing retort. He called Milbury a cat. “He makes no pretense about trying to please anybody and generally what he is, is kind of pleasing,” says Milbury. His devil-may-care style comes through in his game as well. To the old school, some of his antics, like his jumping up against the glass after he scores, are distasteful. Don Cherry took him to task for it. But to most young fans, that’s what makes him so exciting. “It’s almost as if he’s a guy of this generation,” adds Milbury.

Crosby, on the other hand, is more of a throwback, often criticized for being too careful about his public persona. At times this year, he’s appeared downright unhappy. “You see how much Ovechkin enjoys to play the game. I just don’t see it anymore in Crosby. I used to,” says Dennis MacInnis, the director of scouting with the International Scouting Services, who has followed both players since they were young teenagers.

If Crosby has lost some of his zest, it may have a lot to do with his team and its struggles. Ovechkin plays with Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, two top young players who can help feed him the puck. Crosby hasn’t had as strong a supporting cast this year, even though he at times plays with Malkin, the league’s leading scorer. “If you’re a great playmaker and you’re not playing with finishers, it really doesn’t matter,” says Olczyk about Crosby’s situation.

The recent addition of Bill Guerin could help turn things around. During last weekend’s game, the Pens were clicking and Crosby came out flying. In a wide-open two-on-one with Guerin, he took a cross-ice pass and rifled the puck past a splayed- out Washington goalie. Ovechkin, not to be outdone, followed with a goal of his own—a blistering shot from the top of the circle. The third ended in a 3-3 tie and overtime solved nothing. Nor could the game’s first four skaters in the shoot-out. It came down, fatefully, to Crosby and Ovechkin. Crosby carried the puck in and feigned a shot, with an exaggerated kick of his leg. He moved the puck to his forehand and sent it up like a rocket into the top corner of the net. Ovechkin was not so lucky. His shot was sent rattling into the corner. For this game, at least, the advantage was Crosby’s.

But this battle is far from over. With any luck, the duo will continue to push each other, and even dislike each other, for a long time yet. “The whole nature of the game is to best the opposition. That’s going to mean some bruised egos and bruised bones along the way,” says Milbury. Even Caps fans, for all their Crosby bashing, see a silver lining. “This is the Larry Bird versus Michael Jordan rivalry of hockey,” says Sam Brooks, a fan wearing a red shirt that reads “Ov > Crosby” on the back (and a less family-friendly message on the front). Surveying the mass of red-clad, Crosby-hating fans around the Verizon Center he adds, “It’s good for the game.”

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