Book Review: The Ovechkin Project

With the Winter Classic hype machine working overtime in advance of tonight’s outdoor game between the Penguins and Capitals, tremendous attention has been paid in particular to the game’s biggest stars, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

By all team-based measures, Crosby has enjoyed far greater success than Ovechkin to this point (Stanley Cup, Olympic Gold), while Ovechkin has arguably been the more impressive individual performer (two Hart Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards). There’s no question that the two rivals will be given ample screen time on NBC tonight, and they’ve gotten plenty already on HBO’s terrific 24/7: The Road the Winter Classic.

But while Crosby’s past has been quite well-documented, far less is known about Ovechkin.

Filling this gap is The Ovechkin Project, a new book co-written by Damien Cox and Gare Joyce. The book takes a unique look at Ovechkin, helping shine some light on his personality and how he has been affected by his unique journey.

From the loss of his older brother Sergei to his arrival on the international hockey scene to his remarkable rookie campaign with the Capitals to his 13-year, $124 million contract, it is truly remarkable how much Ovechkin has gone through at such a young age (25). And while it’s convenient to pigeon-hole Ovechkin as the fun-loving prankster to Crosby’s straight-laced goody-two-shoes persona, the reality (as we’ve seen over and over on 24/7, is far more complex.

Ovechkin is unarguably the most physically talented player of his generation, bringing to the ice a rarified combination of Pavel Bure’s speed, Cam Neely’s power, and Mario Lemieux’s creativity. The quintessential power forward, Ovechkin is an absolute force on the ice.

Over the course of the past five years, he has singlehandledly transformed the Caps from a D.C. afterthought to the city’s favorite sports franchise (replica Ovechkin jerseys are seen with great regularity at Redskins and Nationals games). And he’s been rewarded for his accomplishments with an incredibly lucrative 13-year, $124 million contract that (to Ovechkin’s credit) hasn’t had a deleterious effect on his effort level.

But at the same time that Ovechkin has enjoyed all of that success, fans are still left wanting more. As a captain, he oversaw a Caps team that faltered badly in the 2010 playoffs after dominating the regular season, and that fell to the hated Penguins in a dramatic seven-game series in 2009. Postseason success has largely eluded the Caps’ franchise for most of its history – the closest they came to capturing a Cup was when they were swept by the Red Wings in 1998 – and it falls upon Ovechkin to change that.

And while Ovechkin was consistently lauded for his fun-loving attitude earlier in his career, the past couple of seasons have been accompanied by a fair amount of darkness on and off the ice, most notably when he was suspended late in the 2009-10 regular season for a vicious hit on the Blackhawks’ Brian Campbell.

“He’s an evolving character,” Joyce told the Washington Post. “He’s a young man. He’s growing into a role that, physically, he’s equipped for. Is he emotionally or psychologically equipped for it? I don’t think it’d be reasonable to expect someone at 24 to be completely ready and equipped to be the franchise player, the star out in front of the league, the national hero, all of those things. There’s a learning curve there, and he’s handling it pretty well, with some slips, sure.”

The book’s release didn’t come without controversy. Ovechkin didn’t sit for any one-on-one interviews, and so the authors were left instead to operate much as standard journalists, following the team and participating in post-practice and post-game media scrums. Caps owner Ted Leonsis was frustrated when he felt that his perspective on Ovechkin wasn’t represented as he’d intended.

“I don’t recognize the person who is being written about here,” Leonsis said in an interview with Japers Rink Radio. “And I cooperated with the writer, I sat for an interview, and I gave dozens and dozens of examples and stories and vignettes about my view of what Alex means to people, the community, how he acts… I didn’t think I was heard or what I said mattered, because it wasn’t in the book. And so that’s why I got turned off a bit.”

Given how passionate Leonsis is – and should be – about Ovechkin, it’s no surprise that he frowns upon any representation of Ovechkin that doesn’t paint the Caps’ star player in a wholly positive light. But the truth is, Joyce and Cox did a terrific job of painting a fairly complete picture of Ovechkin, one that gives equal time to his positives and negatives. Indeed, the authors could have gone much further in breaking down Ovechkin’s recklessness; check out Time to Hit the Brakes for more on that.

This book should be considered a must-read for Caps fans in particular and passionate hockey fans in general. Ovechkin is a dynamite player, and for the first time we get more than a brief 24/7-style glimpse of what the Caps’ superstar is all about.

Though Leonsis claims not to recognize the Ovechkin portrayed in The Ovechkin Project, it’s probably more accurate/complete than the likely filtered version seen by the man who signed Ovechkin to that $124-million contract.

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