Leo Tolstoy on what’s wrong with Ovie 5

Like most hockey watchers and lovers of old Russian literature, we at BP are mystified by what’s happened to the force of nature that was once Alex Ovechkin.


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As we wonder about Ovie, we can’t help but also be mystified by how some of Ovie’s Russian compatriots in the NHL over the years have perfected the art of vanishing every little while (viz. Ilya Kovalchuk, Ilya Bryzgalov, Evgeni Malkin, who only shows up when Crosby’s hurt, Sergei Federov – who could have been the dominant player of his generation – plus former enigmas Alex Kovalev and Ottawa’s folly Alexi Yashin, and even the stupendously talented Alexander Mogilny, who self-identified and recast himself as a defensive forward after scoring 76 goals in a single season… any fan could add to this list, notwithstanding the year-over-year brilliance of Pavel Datsyuk, and Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov a few years back).

Any one of these players (including Ovechkin) on his given day could legitimately lay claim to Best Player in the World status. But the trouble is – or was – those given days have never occurred quite as often as the talented Russians’ coaches, teammates, or fans would like.

Of course, Russians are not the only gifted players to show inconsistently in the NHL. It’s just that many of the Russians in the NHL have obviously been so fast, so skilled, and so deadly that when they don’t dominate their North American-schooled chip-&-chase adversaries, it’s hard to understand why.

What’s the answer? So far, captaincy and a big contract haven’t helped Ovechkin. Neither has a change in coaching. Neither GM George McPhee nor coach Dale Hunter can figure out the problem, and the hockey guys The Washington Post look lost.

So to help solve the enigma, BP turns to the wisdom of literature. With the back door open to let some icy February night air into the room and Glinka slinking out of the iPod dock, we’ve hauled down a few dusty volumes to search for intuitions into Ovie’s troubles – insights from someone who understands his homeland’s singular culture…the checkered political history, the vast untenanted steppes, the cynical humour, and, yes, the cirrhotic allure of the fermented spud.

And in no time, we’ve found an answer to what’s wrong with Ovechkin – in the pages of Leo Tolstoy’s classic The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Why didn’t we think of this before? Like Alex, Leo T had it all: early privilege, prodigious talent, anarchic disposition, a taste for the ladies. Tolstoy is primed to understand Ovie – and here’s what he says in Ivan Ilyich:

Things went particularly well at first, before everything was finally arranged and while something still had to be done… When nothing was left to arrange it became rather dull and something seemed to be lacking.

Adapting Derrida, let’s deconstruct that most telling passage, recasting its literary merit through the prism of Washington’s MCI Center and the hapless Caps:

Things went particularly well at first (those halcyon first few years when Ovie tore up the league), before everything was finally arranged (that whackin’ big deal) and while something still had to be done (proving himself the premier scorer of the age)When nothing was left to arrange (post-signing, post-captaincy, and post 65-goal season) it became rather dull and something seemed to be lacking (hello 2010-present).

There you have it. Or some of it, anyway. So to jolt Ovie from his funk, all the Caps have to do is go to Russia, dig up Count Leo, clean him up a bit and reincarnate him as an assistant coach. Or to avoid the legal issues around disinterment, Dale Hunter might just choose sections from Ivan Ilyich to quote during pre-game chalk talks to galvanize his reluctant star.

Good luck Ovie – the NHL needs you desperate and hungry, like you were “before everything was finally arranged.” And good luck, Dale, with those 19C Russian names.


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5 thoughts on “Leo Tolstoy on what’s wrong with Ovie

  • Superscout

    Fascinating post and cool theory. Love how you invoke Russian literature to understand the enigma that is Alex Ovechkin. I think that what OV is going through is so Russian. As you mention there are countless other examples of the decline or disappearance of the Russian star. OV’s Russian-ness is to me akin to Ronaldinho’s Brazilian-ness. Soccer people are still wondering what happened to the guy who was supposed to become the best player ever. Ronnie – after winning the Champions League and two FIFA World Player Awards – instead became the best DJ in Barcelona’s nightclubs and was then bounced to Milan, Italy (some nice night clubs there too) and finally home to Flamengo. Who knows – maybe that’s what will happen to OV too – a return to the homeland and the KHL, to rediscover his passion for the game? Personally, I think that a new NHL team is in order for OV. I think that for instance the Detroit Red Wings – while they might not “cure” OV of his Russian-ness – might give him the structure, discipline, support and winning mentality which fellows like Fetisov and Larinov benefited from. OV looks to me like a fish out of water in Washington but were he to move to a great club like the Wings, he could swim contentedly and productively like a big, happy sturgeon in the Volga. There’s plenty of caviar to be had from OV still – he just needs the right environment.