There is no doubting the sheer skill of Alex Ovechkin, nor the dramatic, exciting fashion in which he plays the game of hockey. Already charmed with numerous awards, records, All-Star appearances and front-page headlines, he is not only one of the best players in the game but certainly one of its most high-profile names as well.
In 2008, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty gave Ovechkin a key to the city (previous recipients during Fenty's term included the Pope and the President of France). GQ Magazine named Ovechkin the 48th most powerful person in D.C. (and there are some pretty powerful people in that place, for better or for worse)
Ovechkin has even crossed over into the entertainment world, appearing in a music video by Moscow-born singer Vlad Topalov. The song? "Perfect Criminal."
Unfortunately for Ovechkin, detractors say that's exactly what he has become on the ice, thanks to a selection of questionable hits that have resulted in injuries to numerous NHL opponents. Cue the debate that is currently raging: accolades aside, is Alex Ovechkin a dirty hockey player?
It's an interesting question to have to ask.
After all, a guy who won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, affectionately nicknamed "Alexander the Great" and "Ovy", who claimed the Hart and the Lester B. Pearson hardware in 2008 and 2009, is now having his name mentioned in the same breath as some of the league's most notorious goons.
And on the heels of Sunday's hit that sent the Blackhawks' Brian Campbell out of the game with a broken collarbone, earning Ovechkin a two-game suspension, this fiery discussion is now alive and well.
Those involved have divided into two opposing camps. Fans of Ovechkin defend his style, saying he "plays on the edge". Critics contend that's simply a metaphor for his dirty play.
Supporters of the 24-year-old Russian say that, in a game as fast and physical as hockey, there are bound to be incidental collisions and unpleasant ankle-into-the-boards-type accidents. It happens. Players sometimes turn their backs at the last second or simply fall the wrong way into the boards - it's not necessarily always the fault of the hitter.
"I respect everybody," Ovechkin said after Sunday's game. "We respect everybody here in the locker room and outside, but over there (on the ice), we play for our team, and we make some hard hits, and sometimes, you get hurt. That's a hockey game."
But more cynical onlookers have wondered aloud about how "coincidental" it is that Ovechkin often seems to be involved in these types of incidents.
What makes this particular discussion all the more intriguing is that it is one of the sport's two biggest superstars (the other being Sidney Crosby) who is now in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Imagine the biggest names in other leagues being summoned before their respective brass in this fashion. What would happen if LeBron James was constantly throwing 'bows? Or if Roy Halladay made a habit of intentionally beaning opposing batters? Or if Zinedane Zidane just lost it at the World Cup and headbutted - okay, nevermind. The point is that Ovechkin is being noticed and talked about for reasons other than his usual goal-scoring prowess, and this talk of whether a premier player is also a bit of a thug has now jumped to an unprecedented level in the NHL.
The debate essentially comes down to whether you think these hits are the unintended result of Ovechkin's explosive acceleration or if he is consciously deciding to throw violent checks intended to injure.
"I think everyone's known since the first time he came into this league that he plays a reckless style game," said Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges. "He's going a hundred miles an hour, he's hitting everything that moves, he's going to the net, he's burying guys. Obviously when you have the stardom he does, anytime anything happens with Ovechkin's name beside it, it's going to get talked about even more. He plays that way, he plays with that reckless abandoment, and sometimes it's right on the line. You look at the hit last night - did it cross that line? I think maybe it did."
"Sometimes in the heat of the moment, those things happen," said Habs defenceman Ryan O'Byrne. "From my standpoint, it looked like a little bit from behind, but he was kind of skating that way also, so I'm just happy it's not my job to decide if it's a suspension or not."
Past incidents involving Ovechkin include:
- a knee-on-knee hit on the Hurricanes' Tim Gleason
- an infamous knee on Sergei Gonchar during 2009 playoffs, causing the Penguins' defenceman to miss several games
- a hit on the Lightning's Jamie Heward that saw him leave the ice on a stretcher (for the record, Heward, a teammate of Ovechkin's for two years in Washington, said he thought the hit was an accident and that Ovechkin was not a dirty player)
- a check that sent Patrick Kaleta of the Sabres into the boards face-first
- a slew foot on the Thrashers' Rich Peverley
- a big blindside hit on Daniel Briere of the Sabres
What do you think? Is Ovechkin a dirty player, or are these types of incidents simply an unintended consequence of his physical style of play? As always, it's Your! Call.