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Posted: Thursday December 3, 2009 4:42PM; Updated: Tuesday March 16, 2010 10:20AM
Jim Kelley
Jim Kelley>INSIDE THE NHL

Mad Alex gets a dangerous pass

Story Highlights

Alex Ovechkin puts other players at risk with near impunity and refuses to stop

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis gave qualified support to Ovechkin’s dangerous play

The failure to crack down on a top star only continues the trend of damaging hits

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alexander-ovechkin.jpg
Alexander Ovechkin's hellbent-for-leather playing style is part of what makes him a star, and a danger to other players.
Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Last December, in the wake of Alex Ovechkin's first suspension for a dangerous hit, Jim Kelley offered the opinion that the Capitals star's reckless style of play posed a danger to other NHL players. This is a re-publication of that column.

To date, most of the reaction to yet another dirty hit by Washington Capitals superstar forward Alexander Ovechkin has been pointed at the NHL and Colin Campbell, its Director of Hockey Operations.

"Too little!" is the cry from those who believe that the league handing a minimal two-game suspension to its most dynamic player is kid gloves treatment, especially when Ovechkin ran an opponent with a knee-on-knee hit. That belief is made stronger by a look at his "hit lights" tape, which is relatively long and sometimes sordid.

"Too late!" cried another group of naysayers, who argue that in failing to previously rein in the game's biggest gate attraction, Campbell and the NHL have given Ovechkin a sense of if not immunity then certainly impunity regarding plays that have clearly and consistently put other players at risk. But that changes in the wake of comments from Ovechkin and, worse, from Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.

For once, Campbell and the NHL are truly not the parties at fault here.

Both Ovechkin and Leonsis seem to see nothing wrong with the reckless way in which the superstar plays the game or what appears to be an utter disdain for critics who argue that he needs to develop a more wholesome approach.

In his first comments after getting the two-game sit down for his hit on Carolina forward Tim Gleason (one that came about, in part, because he missed what appeared to be an attempt to elbow Gleason in the head), Ovechkin said that, if anything, the suspension might cause him to lift his intensity a bit. "Maybe it just gets me more angry," he threatened.

Now, that's not unexpected from a hockey player. Most of them have been raised in a culture of bravado and intimidation. The idea that they would be put in a position of having to back down is not only repugnant to them, it's generally viewed as dangerous and unfathomable.

In a sense, the NHL's two-time and reigning MVP is doing what a long list of hockey icons before him have always done: refusing to bend under pressure because that would show weakness, and weakness, well, it's simply unacceptable because to show any usually makes one more of a target on the ice.

"I'm not going to change anything," Ovechkin said.

But in the darkness of the truly dangerous hits like the one he laid on Gleason and another just two nights earlier on an unsuspecting Patrick Kaleta (running the Buffalo Sabres forward face-first into the glass from behind and picking up a major penalty), Ovechkin is showing a side we've seen too many times.

There was his knee-on-knee hit on Sergei Gonchar in the playoffs last spring, one that put Pittsburgh's stellar defenseman out of the game.

Ovechkin claimed it was unintentional, but it had all the characteristics of an Ovechkin hit: it was beyond the play, it was willful and he jumped into the hit, which is patently against the rules and something he does a lot.

There was no suspension on that play nor was there for the one in which he blindsided forward Daniel Briere, running him from behind and causing him to slam head-first into the boards well after Briere had moved the puck. Those were big plays and in almost every instance, they were regarded as dirty by the on-ice officials and Ovechkin was penalized accordingly. But when it came to supplemental discipline for a repeat offender, Ovechkin has largely skated away unscathed.

That approach has led to the current dilemma, the argument that somehow Ovechkin is above the rules.

Leonsis, normally one of the NHL's clearest thinkers in the ownership ranks, seems to be abetting it. In a response to the suspension and his conversation with Ovechkin, Leonsis wrote on his website: "Alex isn't trying to hurt anyone. He has an honest respect for the game and for all players in the league. Alex is trying to 'get the puck. I just want what they have and that is the puck.' It is a simple logic. He plays the game the way it was designed. He is just bigger and faster than anyone. Can you name a player in NHL history that has this mix of size, skill, power and speed? I can't.

"Alex does play fast and hard. It is why he is beloved. It is why he is the two-time and reigning MVP of the league. I believe if he changes and becomes a player that is managed by the media or fans or anyone else, he will put himself at risk. 'To thine own self be true.' That is the right motto to live by. That is what I have advised Alex. Be authentic and be respectful. Play the game with passion. Lean in, don't lean back."

Leonsis did temper those remarks somewhat by closing with: "Alex knows that he is needed on the ice. ... I believe Alex is so smart and so intuitive that he will measure and modify -- in his own way -- his game to become even more valuable to our team and franchise as he matures" but the message has already been sent.

Really, Ted? To thine own self be true?

Is that the kind of advice the owners of the Vancouver Canucks gave Todd Bertuzzi, another forward who had an advantage in terms of size, skill, power and speed and used it to cripple Colorado's Steve Moore?

Is that what Marty McSorley heard when he whipped his stick upside the head of Donald Brashear or is it what Chris Simon was told to do when he ran some of his favorite antagonists head-first into the boards or applied a stick to the face?

There is a long history in hockey of "rallying around the perpetrator" and that's what Ovechkin is in these situations: the perpetrator. It's as if somehow it's more important to support the player who has a little "dirt" to his game and perhaps "crossed the line" a few times than it is to keep an opponent safe and the game relatively clean.

In supporting Ovechkin in this fashion, Leonsis continues the trend.

Now, admittedly Leonsis doesn't have a truly long history in the game and he certainly came in long after many players with Ovechkin-like ability and a good deal more class exited -- Montreal's Jean Beliveau, who just happens to have his name on the Stanley Cup some 17 times as a player or administrator comes immediately to mind -- but that's no excuse. Leonis couldn't be more wrong in this instance and in making that statement, he not only went down the wrong path to reining in his player, but he undercut coach Bruce Boudreau in the process.

Boudreau, who after the hit on Gleason said Ovechkin was "pretty reckless" and suggested "maybe he has to pick his spots a little better" and that he was going to "have to have a little talk" with him immediately, was forced to reverse his position.

"I don't want him to change the way he plays at all, either," Boudreau said using words that truly had to be difficult. "When I said 'reckless', I was using the term in fear of him getting hurt, not him hurting anybody else. He's got to be him, so I don't want him to change. That's what makes him one of three things: one of the best players in the world, one of the best personalities in sport, and it's the reason you pay to watch."

When asked if he agreed with the suspension, the coach responded: "Maybe I would have made a different decision.

"He made a play that I thought you could compare it to an awful lot of plays that have happened so far this year," Boudreau said. "Like (GM George McPhee) told me, it was a good hockey play that went wrong."

Funny, but that's what they said in the Ontario Seniors League when Don Sanderson got into a fight, fell, hit his head on the ice and died. "It was just a good hockey play that went wrong."

It's what they said when Philadelphia's Mike Richards leveled Florida's David Booth with a "clean" shoulder check that left Booth with concussion-like symptoms that threaten his career and, maybe over time, his life. "It was just a good hockey play that went wrong."

It's what they said when Michael Liambas of the Erie Otters in the OHL ran Ben Fanelli into the boards, fracturing his skull. "It was just a good hockey play that went wrong."

(Perhaps we should point out here that Liambas, banned for life from the OHL, this week signed on with a different team in a different league.)

It's what they said when the NHL's GMs tiptoed yet again through the minefield of possible new rules to cut down on the violence in the game, turning their backs on pleas from coaches like Toronto's Ron Wilson and players like Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller. Both have asked for a more timely response to the carnage they see on an almost daily basis and both have seen their pleas fall largely on deaf ears.

Leonsis has added his name to the long list of people who could have made a difference but chose to back the status quo. It might be because Ovechkin is "one of the best players in the world, one of the best personalities in sport, and it's the reason you pay to watch," or it might be because that's the way things work in the hockey world.

Either way, this doesn't fall totally on Campbell and the NHL.

It's "just hockey" -- the one thing in all of this that never truly changes.

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