VANCOUVER – At the 2010 Olympics, we may witness the first-ever head-to-head confrontation at the senior IIHF level between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
Surprisingly, the NHL's two marquee superstars have never had such a showdown before. In 2006, both Crosby and Ovechkin participated in the IIHF World Championship in Riga, Latvia, but Canada and Russia never faced each other. Individually, Crosby had the edge, topping the tournament scoring race with 16 points to Ovechkin's nine. But Canada's fourth-place finish and Russia's fifth-place finish couldn't have satisfied either player.
The all-time greats – whether you're talking about Gretzky, Howe, and Orr, or Kharlamov, Tretiak and Fetisov – are always ultimately concerned more with their team's success than with individual numbers and trophies.
It is, of course, unfair to label 2010 the “Ovechkin versus Crosby Olympics”, because hockey is a team sport. But these are both players that have the ability, not just to make a play that changes a game, but to go ahead and impose their will on the game.
However, the captain of the Washington Capitals and his Pittsburgh Penguins counterpart achieve their goals in such different ways.
It's hard to pin down intangible qualities that make a star what he is. But if I had to try, I'd say that Ovechkin's success stemly mostly from passion, whereas Crosby's mostly reflects his drive. (Their skill sets both go without saying, and they have both diversified their games to the point where the old “Ovechkin shoots, Crosby makes plays” label is no longer adequate.)
One dictionary defines passion as “a powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger”. And that's what you see every time Ovechkin steps on the ice. He's blowing kisses and throwing himself into the boards when he scores goals. He gets angry when his team falls behind and spurs himself to play better. A classic example occurred in Washington's come-from-behind 5-4 OT victory over Pittsburgh on February 7, where Ovechkin led the way with a hat trick.
The same dictionary defines drive as “the trait of being highly motivated”. To that, you might add “focused” in Crosby's case. He is truly single-minded in his devotion to the game. Since an early age, his focus has been on making the NHL and winning the Stanley Cup, and he already achieved that goal in 2009. The morning after playing in the 2007 NHL All-Star Game, he reportedly got up early and headed to a Dallas-area rink to practice: not what you'd expect from a player who was then 19. The slogan of his sports energy drink ad rings true: “Crosby Doesn't Stop.”
So if these two do clash in elimination play, who will come out on top? As trite as it may sound, it'll come down to whoever brings his best game on a given day.
I think that at his best, Ovechkin can raise his game to greater heights, but Crosby is more reliable. In many ways, they reverse the old stereotypes of the “heart-and-soul” Canadian and the “robotic Russian”.
Physically more spectacular, Ovechkin is more likely to do something you've never seen before on a hockey rink, like his famous lying-on-his-back goal versus Phoenix in 2006. But he's had a few more peaks and valleys in his career. One obvious example is the 2007 IIHF World Championship, where he posted just one goal and two assists on home ice in Moscow and settled for bronze.
Crosby pursues his goal with unflinching dedication until he gets there. For him, failure isn't an option. He just keeps on pushing. Alexander Semin's controversial observation in 2008 that he “didn't see anything special” in Crosby has proven false, even though Crosby is more likely to take the simple, direct route to create his offence, while Ovechkin generally attacks with a flourish.
Ovechkin has much more senior international experience than Crosby: he's competed in one Olympics, five World Championships, and the World Cup of Hockey. Objectively, it seems fair to assert that winning Olympic gold would probably mean more to him than to Crosby – although the pressure of playing on home ice here gives Crosby an added sense of urgency. Ovechkin has, after all, said he's going to Sochi no matter what; Crosby wouldn't likely defy his employer if necessary in order to make a February 2014 pilgrimage to the Black Sea.
Win or lose, Vancouver will be a defining moment for both of them. Come Sochi, Ovechkin will be 28 and Crosby 26, both still in their prime. But 2014 is too far away, the future too unknowable: they must make their statements now.
In one Olympic confrontation, they could create the kind of magic that would even outshine what they did head-to-head in last year's classic Pittsburgh-Washington series. Their dominance is such that even though Evgeni Malkin captured the 2009 Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophies, he still doesn't come close to rivalling Crosby and Ovechkin in a “who's the world's best forward?” discussion.
Crosby has a Stanley Cup; Ovechkin has a World Championship. Both have bright prospects of cracking the Triple Gold Club, currently featuring 22 members. And when it comes to Olympic gold, there's no time like the present.
Passion, meet drive. Drive, meet passion.