It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The queasy fear that began during the 2003-04 season and throughout the Stanley Cup finals turned into a reality on Feb. 16, 2004 when Gary Bettman announced the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season. But the disappointment for hockey fans was tempered at least in part by the knowledge that when hockey finally did return, two young stars would be the new face of the game.
Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have been linked – whether they like it or not – since the start of their careers. It’s a bond that will likely last until they’re inducted into the Hall of Fame, maybe even during the same ceremony. In 2004 Ovechkin was drafted first overall by the hapless, bald eagle-logoed Washington Capitals and missed what would have been his first year in the league because of the lockout.
The baby-faced Crosby was drafted a year later and, as the last generation of stars returned to the ice a full year older, made his NHL debut on Oct. 5, 2005, the same night as Ovechkin.
Ovechkin’s fast, gritty style quickly made him the role model of pee-wees everywhere who flocked to sports stores for a new pair of bright skate laces. He would eventually beat out Crosby for the Calder Trophy after a season in which “Sid the Kid” would have his teeth knocked out by Darien Hatcher.
Jaded fans will remember that the most outspoken members of the NHLPA in 2005-05 were Chris Chelios, Mathieu Schneider and other established stars. In the 2011-12 fiasco Crosby stood firm, almost always visible behind Union boss Donald Fehr during the PA’s New York City press conferences. It might simply be because he’s more comfortable in his native country, but Ovechkin irked fans when he rode the first wave of players to sign in with the KHL.
It didn’t help that’d his play has tailed off after, as the Washington Times put it, “his four 50-plus-goal seasons should be the opening act on a Hall of Fame career.”
Players of all nationalities both stayed in North America and went overseas. Still, it’s hard not to look at Ovechkin’s eagerness to take up with his old mates on Dynamo Moscow so quickly as an indication that he might not be the same player who embarrassed the Phoenix Coyotes in 2006.
The past season and a half have included an at-times sloppy Capitals captain. Even disinterested. He lost the Vader-visored Russian antihero image when coaches figured out how to block his weapon of choice – a forehand shot from the high slot after barreling over the blue line. Not to mention the incessant questions about his leadership method, or lack thereof.
Meanwhile, Crosby’s popularity numbers outside of Pittsburgh and Canada were on he upswing. The implicit immaturity barking slowed when Ovechkin’s personal rival Evgengi Malkin hit the steel town, more so when the Pens lost to Detroit in the Finals, then disappeared when the pencil thin mustache sat on a smile, owing its existence to a Stanley Cup championship.
Canadian sportswriters let out a simultaneous guffaw when they heard he had played in the playoffs on a broken foot. He even admitted that he spent too much time whining earlier in his career.
There exists a hard-to-find hidden video of Ovechkin watching the Penguins celebrating the series victory. He slunk into a CBC interview early and caught the tail end of a Pittsburgh Championship fan video. When prompted as to why he couldn’t look away, AO confessed he hadn’t yet watched the glory and champagne drinking.
But by the time Crosby scored the gold medal winner in the 2010 Olympics Canada’s 7-3 victory over Russia in the tournament quarterfinals was met with a “Who cares?” The fire in Ovechkin’s eyes when he saw that video had dissapated completely.
Both players continued their trends when the lockout came. Not long after Ovechkin started lighting up the KHL he said during an interview that he’d consider keeping it up.
“If our contracts get slashed, I will have to think whether to return there or not. I won’t rule out staying in the KHL, even past this season,” he told RIA Novosti, translated on Capitals Insider. Nor was he the portrait of unity when he doubled down on the threat.
“I said it before, before I sign contract, if the league decide to cut our salaries and cut our contracts for what they want, I don’t know how many guys will be coming back.”
The good news for both players – and fans – is that the rest of the story is far from written. Both players enter their second post-lockout season with decidedly less press attention. The shortened season provides a potential for excitement that wouldn’t have been present in a full 82-game campaign. Ovechkin will work to remind his teammates why he was named captain as Crosby attempts to avoid becoming the patron saint of concussed athletes.
By the time the current CBA expires the duo will be eight years older, Crosby 33 and Ovechkin 35. If they’re still playing (and they will), hopefully both them and their fans will have come full circle.