There’s a difference between talent and leadership. Alex Ovechkin is oozing with the first, but largely deficient when it comes to the other. The Capitals named Ovechkin their captain two years ago because he was the best player on the team (if not the planet), and because with 11 years remaining on his 13-year, $124 million contract, they couldn’t run the risk of alienating their tent-pole star by awarding the C to someone else.
In retrospect, they may have made a poor decision.
Before I go on, understand that this is not an indictment of Ovechkin the player, or even Ovechkin the person. He is supremely skilled on the ice, and by all accounts personable and charismatic off of it. And when he notches a heart-stopping overtime tally like he did last Tuesday to beat the Islanders, we tend to gloss over his foibles. But the time has arrived for a fair accounting.
I’m not going to sit here and propose that the team strip Ovechkin of his captaincy; we all know that would do more harm than good by engendering bitterness and creating locker-room factions. Still, if Ovechkin isn’t prepared to make wholesale changes to his off-ice approach and treat the captaincy with the gravity it warrants, it might be in the best long-term interest of the franchise for him to consider forfeiting the C voluntarily.
The Capitals are suffering. And I’m not talking about the back-to-back shutouts they endured over the weekend. The team is in the midst of a season-long identity crisis that has already cost one head coach his job and may lead to the same fate for his successor if they miss the playoffs (which they would if the season ended today). There have been questions about work ethic, communication, and accountability—all of which might have been mitigated, to some degree, by a unifying captain. But Ovechkin, for all his strengths, does not fit that bill.
Ovechkin himself didn’t initially want the burden of the captaincy. When Jeff Halpern left for Dallas in 2006 and the position opened up, Ovi reportedly turned it down. He knew instinctively that after just one year in the league (albeit a year in which he scored 52 goals), he wasn’t ready to be a leader of men. Chris Clark was given the role, a choice that was widely lauded even though at the time, Clark had only scored more than ten goals in a season once in his career. It was Clark’s leadership the team was endorsing, not his goal scoring.
The Boston Red Sox have had just three captains since 1923. Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice were Hall of Fame–caliber players, but Jason Varitek surely wasn’t. Varitek was a career .256 hitter who averaged 14 home runs per season. Yet from 2005 until his retirement last week, Tek was the glue that bound the Red Sox franchise, leading them to four playoff berths and a World Series title during that span. Bear in mind, Varitek was chosen as Boston’s captain on teams that featured the likes of David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Kevin Youkilis, Curt Schilling, and any number of other players more talented than him. But the Red Sox knew who their leader was.
There are rare athletes who possess both the mind-boggling athletic skills and the combination of finesse, savvy, and gravitas to bend the varied wills of a far-flung locker room in a common direction. Jeter has it. Steve Yzerman had it for 20 years in Detroit. Ovechkin doesn’t seem to.
Some have pointed out that Ovechkin’s development as a leader may have been retarded by his lack of proficiency in English. Perhaps. But what about that old-fashioned notion of leading by example? No linguistic skills are required for that. Truth be told, in some areas, Ovechkin has set a positive example by his actions. For one, few players of his skill level have ever been so willing to sacrifice their bodies to finish a check. He has been rightfully praised for that ethos. But at the same time, Ovechkin has relied too heavily on his natural skills and not displayed a work ethic that might inspire his teammates to make similar sacrifices. When he arrives for training camp overweight, it sends a dangerous message to the rest of the team. When former Caps goalie and current assistant coach Olie Kolzig calls him out for being “wrapped up too much in the rock-star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin”—and the general manager agrees—it’s more than just idle chatter. That seems to reflect a more widespread belief within the organization that Ovechkin is not doing all he can to live up to his lofty reputation, his prodigious paycheck, or the C on his sweater.
Back in November, when Ovechkin was benched by then-coach Bruce Boudreau for the final minute of regulation in a one-goal game against Anaheim, the Russian star’s reaction exemplified his blind spot when it comes to the responsibilities of being a leader. Instead of accepting Boudreau’s decision with grace and showing support for the guys on the ice, TV cameras captured Ovechkin stewing on the bench and muttering a two-word expletive to describe his feelings towards Boudreau. The first word was “fat.” The second word also started with an F.
Granted, the benching was a blow to Ovechkin’s pride, but pride is an inherently selfish emotion. The job of a captain is to put team before self. The job of a captain is to unify the rank-and-file behind the coach’s decision, irrespective of whether that decision benefits him personally (assuming the coach isn’t some sort of Captain Queeg–type maniac, which Boudreau wasn’t). What Ovechkin did that night against the Ducks, and what he seemingly did thereafter by allowing his relationship with Boudreau to deteriorate, was an abdication of his duty to lead. Had the captain played things differently, Boudreau might still be the coach here, and this season might have had a very different profile.
Is it possible Ovechkin is now testing the patience of new coach Dale Hunter? Sunday against the Flyers it was Ovechkin’s turnover in the second period that led to a goal by Philly winger Eric Wellwood. It turned out to be the only goal of the game. For nearly seven minutes following his error, Ovechkin never saw the ice. Hunter insists it was not a benching. Rather, he says he was simply “matching lines.” Whatever it was, it certainly didn’t feel like a ringing endorsement.
Sidney Crosby was named the captain of the Penguins in 2007. Rewind the clock a few years to when Ovechkin was at the height of his powers and he and Crosby were developing one of the most compelling star-on-star rivalries in all of sports. Perhaps there was an imperative to make Ovechkin the Caps captain to keep the arms race with Crosby on even footing. As former Caps defenseman Brian Pothier told Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post at the time, “It was just inevitable for us to have that letter on his jersey.”
Inevitable? Ladies, did you marry your husband because he was your soul mate and the two of you were head-over-heels in love, or because it was inevitable?
Alex Ovechkin is a mesmerizing talent with a skill set rarely seen in NHL history. But over the past five months his team has staggered through a series of disappointing lapses and crises that have placed this season in jeopardy. The vacuum of leadership from the captain seems at least partially to blame.