Wins and Losses in Washington, or How To Break A Russian Machine

The Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin aren't what they used to be. What got lost in the pursuit of a Stanley Cup win?
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When a fabulously wealthy businessman buys an underperforming sports team in hopes of turning it into a profitable enterprise, he is thinking about the Washington Capitals and the 2007-08 NHL season. That dreaming centimillionaire is thinking about how a city can go from apathy to obsession, and how an arena can go from crypt to rock concert. Because of what the Capitals did during that Disney script of a season, it’s clear that such miracles are possible.

In November 2007, the month Glen Hanlon was fired and Bruce Boudreau—a bulbous-headed man who could win any George Costanza Lookalike Contest—was named head coach, the Capitals were 3-10-2 and averaged 13,018 fans a game. That would have been last in the league had it held for the entire season; the Caps had been 27th and 28th in attendance the previous two years. “They were giving away tickets to students—student rush nights, or whatever they called them. It was still a very easy ticket to get,” recalls Jon “J.P.” Press, the Managing Editor of the popular Capitals blog Japers’ Rink. “It didn’t really come back and explode as the phenomenon that it did until Boudreau got here and they started actually winning games.”

The last two months of that Capitals season were complete sell-outs at the Verizon Center, a bleary high-volume blur of screaming new converts, bemused die-hards, and businessmen tipsy off $10 drafts and fitted out with red Ovechkin jerseys, tag still attached, over Jos. A. Bank dress shirts bought as part of a buy-one-get-nineteen-free promo. The Capitals had done the worst-to-first leap and made the playoffs behind a transcendent performance by the young and brilliant and charismatic Alex Ovechkin. Tickets were selling for multiple times face value on the secondary market. The invisible hand had a voice, and it was telling you to go see Washington Capitals hockey. All over the course of a few months. Do you believe in miracles, and all that. Of course it had to end.

***

From the day Alex Ovechkin was drafted, he became the battered, prematurely and preternaturally toothless face of Washington hockey. There was also The Goal against Phoenix: the sliding-on-the-ice-over-the-head-while-turning-and-by-the-way-where-is-the-goalie goal that no human can really understand, much less replicate. That was 2006, during Ovechkin’s first season in the NHL; the Capitals still weren’t much of a team. As talent began to surround him in the form of his linemate and setup man Nicklas Backstrom, fellow-Russian Alexander Semin—a player who was infamous for refusing to do two things: play defense and learn English, a curious combination for a hockey player in the United States—and Canadian prettyboy/defenseman Mike Green, Ovechkin finally had a team to support his immense talent. With Boudreau, they started to win. Ovechkin won back-to-back MVPs; his first few years were on par with Mario Lemieux’s and—I will say it, since it’s true—Wayne Gretzky’s.

The Capitals are currently last in their division, which is the worst division in the NHL. To put their current struggles in perspective, the Caps are tied with the Islanders for worst in the conference. They are on their third coach in two seasons. The team has utilized at least four “systems” in the past three seasons, depending on how you define such things. As in an M.C. Escher painting, it either begins or ends with Ovechkin. His struggles this season—he has five  goals through 15 games thus far—have those in Washington particularly concerned given he still has eight years left on a contract that is the richest in hockey history.

Ovechkin, who was legitimately compared with Wayne Gretzky, is now, at age 27, being discussed as potential trade bait, which is sort of another, coyer way of comparing him to Wayne Gretzky. More importantly, Ovechkin simply doesn’t play as often as he used to—not because of health, but because his coaches don’t want him on the ice as often. The man who very recently defined Capitals hockey is now being phased out of it. This is not how or when this story was supposed to end.

***

Bruce Boudreau—nicknamed Gabby for his long-winded press conferences where he told you not only who he killed, how he killed them, but also where the body was buried and directions on how to get there—was the perfect choice to take over as coach in November of 2007 because he simply “took the leash off and let the dogs run” as Press put it.

Boudreau recognized the vast amount of talent he had on the roster, and rather than teach them an intricate system, allowed them to play pond hockey. From 2007-2010, the Capitals finished 12th, fourth and first respectively in total goals (goals for and goals against) per game. They were more talented than the opposition and played that way.
This excitement brought a lot of hockey fans in DC back to the game after the traditional NHL Lockout Observance. “I was a lapsed fan while I was in college right up until Alex came to town,” admits Peter Hassett, editor of the blog Russian Machine Never Breaks, a blog that got its name from an Ovechkin quote responding to a question about being hit in the leg by a puck. “I was turned off by the moves the team had made in the early 2000’s [a section of the Capitals’ Wikipedia page is titled “Disappointments and Rebuilding”]. But Alex turned it all around.”

J.P. Press recollects how the atmosphere in the Verizon Center reacted to Ovechkin’s talent: “There were years where, when Ovechkin had his puck on his stick, you were on the edge of your seat, leaning forward to see what he was doing. His explosive talent was something we hadn’t seen here, pretty much ever. At every TV timeout there would be a chant of ‘MVP! MVP!’” In a free-flowing game where a frozen rubber object bounces weird ways, players are often caught out of position and just as often slide oddly because they’re on a giant sheet of ice, Ovechkin had supernatural command over the proceedings. Or, as Ovechkin once summarized, “My weapon isn’t my shot. It’s me.”

***

In 2009, the Capitals lost a well-played seven-game series to the Penguins, the eventual Stanley Cup winners. The Capitals and Penguins were fierce rivals in the old NHL divisional format, which only heightened the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry. Crosby is very much the fundamentally-sound, tight-lipped Canadian star that Canadian fans love to worship, which puts him at odds with Ovechkin both stylistically and nationalistically. When Ovechkin suffered back-to-back embarrassments against Canada—in the Olympics in 2010 and the playoffs that same year against the Canadiens of Montreal—it may have been a bit too much.

What was formerly one of Ovechkin’s strengths—the fact that he wasn’t a Canadian-style snowman; that he had a personality and approached the game with obvious and palpable joy—seemed to fade into a somber seriousness. As Press believes, “It seemed to get tenser. He didn’t have that boyish fun he seemed to have earlier in his career, and rightly so because it became imperative that the team start winning in the postseason and doing something. You can score all those goals in the regular season, but there’s one ultimate goal every team has.”

The Capitals organization had to react to their playoff failures. Boudreau tried to alter his strategy—although there is some debate about whether this was a good idea—but was fired precisely four years after he was given the job. Dale Hunter—a former Capitals player who became a cult hero for punching a player during a goal celebration because he stole the puck from Dale—took over on an interim basis. Hunter was the anti-Boudreau, insisting on a defensive mindset, sound goaltending, and rewarding tough play with more ice time. That is, he would much rather have had a player made entirely of fists on his team than Alex Ovechkin.

Now the Capitals are coached by another former player, Adam Oates, who wants to mesh Boudreau’s system with Hunter’s style, which is a bit like combining a lemur with War and Peace. For the first time since Boudreau took over in 2007, the Capitals will almost certainly miss the playoffs. To go with those five goals this season, Ovechkin had 38 last season, and 32 the year before. These are hardly numbers that would send most players into a panic, but for Ovechkin, they mark significant declines over his MVP years, at a time when he should have been posting among the best numbers of his career.

“I don’t think he’s necessarily adapted and adjusted his game to opponent defenses of him,” Press observes. “Part of that, certainly, is system-related.” Hassett has similar system-related thoughts. “I'm a bit frustrated with his play, but I think the vast majority of the falloff can be ascribed to the changes the club has undergone (from all-offense-all-the-time to a more conservative style), the changes the NHL has seen (fewer power plays and less scoring overall), and the natural drop-off that occurs with every player in his late 20’s.”  

And still, the Capitals were a mere one game away from the Eastern Conference finals last season. It’s not that the lockout has put a distance between the Capitals’ success and their current struggles, but rather that the post-Boudreau Capitals don’t feel like the Capitals at all. They have many of the same players, but the trap is not the style that filled the Verizon Center in 2008. Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur may have conquered Newark with the trap, but—as only Ovechkin can put it—in Washington “my job is to score goals”.

***

“[There certainly isn’t] that same sense of optimism among the fans, that if you go to the arena you might see Ovechkin do something you’ve never seen before,” Press believes. He is speaking to me on the phone, but also directly to my experience. He’s inadvertently describing a goal I saw Ovechkin score in person. It was this goal. It was a goal no other hockey player on the planet—then or now—could score.

There’s an alternate world where an above average—even a very good—hockey player is in Ovechkin’s position and does what every well-coached player would do: carry the puck into the zone to set up possession. On this goal, Ovechkin does not do this. More to the point, Ovechkin’s move works because he does not even consider doing this. Ovechkin passes the puck to himself off wall around the defender, while simultaneously doing a 360-spin to get around the opposite side of the defender; then he chases down the puck. He does this on a sheet of ice, against a veteran defender, flawlessly.

And now he is accelerating, displaying that dazzling raw speed. Just crossing the blue line, he has only a short distance to get the puck and gain an angle against the goalie for a shot; another Canadien is chasing him down from behind. His margin for error is somewhere near where he left the first defender, who is still finding his socks. Taking one hand off his stick, Ovechkin strong-arms the oncoming defender while controlling the puck with his non-dominant hand. Falling onto his side, the defender is now helpless to alter Ovechkin’s movement, and with both hands back on his stick, Ovechkin lifts the puck over the goalie’s pad and into the net. It’s not so much that no other hockey player could have scored that goal, as it is that no other hockey player would have ever thought to attempt it. You’d have to be a special kind of great just to imagine scoring a goal like this. You’d have to be Alex Ovechkin to actually do it.

***

“There’s got to be some optimism that they’re on the right track with Oates,” believes Press. It’s not completely clear if this is a testament to how much he thinks of Oates as a brilliant hockey mind, a manifestation of wishful thinking, or both. To be sure, Oates wasn’t given much of a chance this year, with only a few short weeks after the lockout to put a system in place, and the shortened season meant it had to work immediately.

Still, even if there is no reason for optimism, even if Ovechkin will never be that Ovechkin again, Washington still has plenty of reasons to stand up and applaud every time he steps onto the ice like its 2008. Hassett told me, “Some people might bristle at the idea that Ovechkin tricked a whole bunch of bandwagon fans into buying tickets, but it's true. And good. Alex Ovechkin brought me back. I'm just grateful that Alex Ovechkin and DC hockey are one in the same.”

Press agrees that DC fans ought to be grateful for what they had rather than lament what they may have lost. “As much as fans want to win Cups and things like that, if you don’t enjoy some of the stuff along the way, I think you’re missing out. Looking back on it, I don’t think everyone really appreciated just how special those years were individually for Ovechkin or as a team.” In 2011, Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, founded Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which now owns the Capitals, Wizards, Mystics, and the Verizon Center itself. With this, Leonsis has affirmed the Capitals are an entertainment product, formalizing the business success Boudreau, Ovechkin and the rest began with those first sellouts in 2008. From then through 2011—until the Capitals’ coaches decided he was to play differently and less often—Alex Ovechkin was the most entertaining player in the NHL. But a city of demanding arriviste fans wanted more--specifically, a large, silver drinking receptacle--and were willing, bit by bit, to sacrifice pretty much everything about their team that made them worth watching in the first place to get it.

But winning a championship doesn’t necessarily make a team worth watching. In 2003, I sat in the upper deck of the then-named Continental Arena for the Devils 3-0 win in Game 7 over the Mighty Ducks for their trap-induced Stanley Cup victory. It was a horrendously dull game in which the Devils got a first-period goal, settled into a defensive framework, and never allowed the Ducks anything resembling a scoring chance. People have accused the Trap-Playing-Devils of ruining hockey; those people are wrong, but the Devils certainly didn’t convert many people to the game, either—their strategy to throw a fire blanket over the neutral zone makes for a boring spectacle. I don’t remember much from that game, except a guy behind me getting thrown out for some vaguely inappropriate stadium behavior, and the crowd booing Jean-Sébastien Giguère, the goalie for the losing team, for winning the playoff MVP award. I remember the successful tedium. I don’t remember any noise.

Great athletes are revealed in the noise that chases them. You can hear it in Ovechkin’s goal against Montreal, after he passes the puck to himself off the wall: the sound of 18,000 people go “Whooooop”. It is the sound of seeing something you bought an expensive ticket specifically to witness, and yet didn’t quite expect to or even know how to see. It is the sound of thousands of adults experiencing adolescent amazement, everyone forgetting who they are or what they do with their lives, remembering none of that matters, and simply enjoying the game just as much as young Alex surely did.

“You’ve got to be true to yourself...I found I was getting away from that,” said Coach Boudreau, now overseeing the first-place Mighty Ducks and again finding himself a Coach of the Year candidate. “People were saying, ‘Do this’ and ‘Do that.’ I wasn’t doing what I believed was the right thing.” Boudreau fell victim to the same wave of ravenousness obsession for perfection that seems to have ensnared Ovechkin today. Maybe too many people now paying attention to the Capitals never loved the game to begin with. Maybe too many people can’t appreciate Ovechkin for what he really is. Maybe Ovechkin now has limitations he didn’t have before. Maybe Ovechkin never was as perfect as we thought he was. Or maybe none of those hypotheticals matter. Maybe Ovechkin simply broke those teeth, scored those goals, gave us those moments, and that was all he or any athlete could give, and maybe that is enough.


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