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Ovechkin, sports politiking

Peter Behrend


12/21/2022


The Moscow-born Russian hockey superstar Alex Ovechkin scores his 800th career goal against the Chicago Blackhawks. After 17 seasons of playing in the top professional hockey league, the NHL, for the Washington D.C. team, The Washington Capitals, he has cemented his legacy as one of the top three scorers in the national hockey league history.


His legacy isn’t set in stone though. The second scorer of all time, Gordie Howe, is just one goal ahead of him at 801. There are 52 games left in the Capitals’ season and he’s scored 20 goals in the 30 games they’ve played thus far. In fact, he’s scored 7 goals in the last four games. So, Ovi will likely pass the great Gordie Howe in goals this season. At the rate Ovi is scoring, he might even pass him the next game.


But the first-place spot is a different mountain entirely. The great Wayne Gretsky sits at the top of that mountain. Sipping coffee in his parka, beenie, and boots, he waits for Ovi to arrive and climb past his whooping 895 goals. The Canadian’s legend won’t be surpassed by Ovi this season, but there’s a solid chance it will within Ovi’s 20th season and 40th year of life.


Ovechkin isn’t as fast as he was at the beginning of his career, But his heart hasn’t changed. Ovi isn’t scoring goals by breaking through three defensemen as he did in his 20s, but he is scoring goals almost as consistently as he did in his 20s. in his 2005 rookie year, Ovi put away 52 goals and passed 54 assists. In 2006 he had a bit of a sophomore slump and only scored 46 goals. But after that slump, Ovi went another three seasons without dropping below 50 goals. In 2007 he had his career high with 65 goals, in 2008 he had 56, and in 2009 he had 50. From there, Ovi fluctuated between 30-goal seasons and high forties to low 50-goal seasons. He did have one season under 30 goals, but that was the covid half-season. This brings us to last season, where he matched to goal stats of his decade-younger self with a 50-goal season.


On the night of Wednesday, December 14th, Ovechkin scored his 18th, 19th, and 20th goal of the 2022-2023 season. The Capitals beat the Chicago Blackhawks, with a 7-3 victory in their opponent’s stadium. At the score of 4-2, Ovi scored the 5th goal for the Capitals. A 5-2 lead was a death sentence to Chicago’s chances at victory.


This is typically the moment in a one-sided sports event where the home crowd goes quiet or leaves altogether. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the home crowd cheered for the away team’s star player. That fifth goal that took the home team out of the game was a historical one, and the fans knew it. A ten- or twenty-minute delay was allowed in the game for Ovechkin and his team to celebrate. Before the game continued, the two-star players of the Chicago Blackhawks, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews went over to Ovechkin and shook his hand. Ovechkin is as well-liked by the sport of hockey as he is talented at scoring goals in it. But outside of hockey, who exactly is Ovechkin?


Typically, when people who don’t enjoy the sport of hockey think of Alex Ovechkin, they think of a Russian citizen who is an open supporter of Vladimir Putin, playing hockey for a team in the capital of Russia’s cold war rival; the United States of America. Putting all of the legitimate grandeur surrounding Alex Ovechkin aside, there are a significant number of questions surrounding his exitance in Washington DC. In fact, while the topic of existence is brought up, there are a significant number of questions surrounding his very existence in general.


Alexander Ovechkin was born on September 17th, 1985, in the heart of Moscow Russia. His parents were both soviet athletes. In particular, his mother was a super soviet athlete. Donning two Olympic gold medals and one World Championship, Tatyana Ovechkina was a fantastic basketball player for the soviet team. His father, Mikhail Ovechkin, was a footballer but never won a championship due to the intense intercontinental competition of the sport.


According to Tatyana, Ovechkin began to show interest in hockey at two years of age, but they couldn’t justify paying for him to play the sport on their tight family budget for another 6 years. At 8 years old, his father brought him to the same sports program that his wife in him performed for and grew in throughout their early careers, the Dynamo Moscow system. Ovechkin was rejected by the first coach his parents brought to. The coach, Alexander Filippov, rejected him due to his lack of training in the sport to this point. However, the second coach they brought him to, Vyacheslav Kirillov, turned out to be the perfect fit. According to an article written by Jon Sorenson, Tatyana once said “People know almost nothing about Sasha’s first coach, Kirillov. About the man who put his whole soul into my son, and to whom Sasha owes everything.” Kirillov didn’t live to see Ovechkin make it to the NHL, he died tragically of heart failure at age 29. But his training enabled Ovechkin to make it to the Dynamo’s juniors’ program, and subsequently the NHL in 2005.


Likewise, Ovechkin’s older brother Sergei died tragically from a blood clot following a car accident. Like Kirillov, Sergei played a big role in young Alex’s hockey career. When his parents were occupied with their work, Sergei was responsible for getting Ovechkin to practice. This meant calling cabs for him, walking with him in the cold of a Russian winter, and picking him up from school on occasion. According to the same Jon Sorenson article, “it was Sergei who motivated Ovi to go in for sports, guided the true path, taught him to fight to the end and give all of himself on ice.”


All those factors make it clear how much Ovechkin loves the sport of hockey. His natural affinity for it, plus his need to carry on the legacies of the one who trained him and the brother who supported him, make his passion for the sport all the more evident. But it’s a bit unclear how exactly that relates to his recent political stints. Specifically, the #PUTINTEAM campaign, and the actions leading up to it are odd in the face of his, seeming, lack of interest in politics.


On February 20th of 2014, Putin and his Russian Federation annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. This is considered to be the first hint of outright hostility from Russia towards Ukraine. Just 8 months later, on October 7th, Ovechkin posted this, “Happy birthday!!!! You’re on the right track and we respect your actions and will support you in everything always because we also love our country!!! Health to you and your loved ones!” It’s a birthday message, but the words “right track” are obviously concerning. Not long before the annexation, Ovi posted a picture on Instagram wearing a shirt saying #SaveChildrenFromFascism. A slogan that the Russian Machine Never Breaks blog ties to pro-Russian support within the Ukrainian population. The year following the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio, Ovechkin started the #TeamPutin trend on Twitter, which attempted to garner support for Putin from Russian athletes playing in the NHL.


On social media, Ovechkin is incredibly pro-Putin, but in interviews, he claims to be neutral and simply anti-war. In one interview he claims” I’m not a politic, I don’t know what’s happening out there. I know it’s a hard situation, but it is what it is. You know, I play here, and this is my second home. I don’t want to fight between two countries, because it’s going to be a mess.” But in another, he claims that #TeamPutin was entirely his idea and no one else’s, essentially implying his claims of neutrality to be false.


It's a familiar form of political approach, that’s been seen used by politicians like Donald Trump of the USA, Boris Johnson of the UK, Marie Le Pen of France, and perhaps most relevantly Vladimir Putin of Russia. An attempt to persuade the audience of citizens that their actions are not their intentions. Likewise, any wrongdoing that comes from their actions is not their fault but somebody else’s. Ovechkin claims to be anti-war and anti-politics, but he has clearly picked a side, Russia.


That said, it’s unlikely that he picked that side out of political intent. Many are hypothesizing about Ovechkin’s political goals after retirement from the NHL but based on his history and based on his character, he doesn’t seem interested in anything outside of his family and the NHL.


Ovechkin claims to have started the #TeamPutin campaign all on his own, but there is some evidence that indicates this might not be true. For one, he didn’t put any significant amount of effort into it. If he truly wanted his fellow Russian NHL players to join the Instagram trend, he would have put more effort into media marketing for his cause. The trend basically fizzed but with only Evgeni Malkin’s support.


Ovechkin is a big celebrity in the west but is practically an A-list celebrity in Russia. This means that his media sway among even estranged Russians is huge. But more importantly, it means that he is required by the rules of Russian media, to speak fondly about Russia’s stability. His family is in Russia, his birthplace is Russia, and his monetary ties are ultimately to Russia. His parents followed their athletic dreams with the support of the Kremlin, and so has Ovechkin.


With all of that in consideration, it’s almost odd that Ovechkin hasn’t said more to support Putin and the rest of the Russian government’s reputation. If his finances and ability to play hockey are tied entirely to his utility to the Russian government, one would think that he would put a little more effort into ensuring those things are a constant for him. The thing is, he does put a lot of effort into keeping that Russian support constant but not thru politicking, in the same way, he got the support in the first place. Playing high-quality hockey and reaching for that scoring record.


 


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