Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry becomes a classic, plus Renney's run
Crosby and Ovechkin's rivalry began to bloom at January's All-Star Game
Their rivalry is intriguing not because of its ferocity but for its subtleties
Ex-Rangers coach Tom Renney would be ideal for Canada's 2010 Olympic staff
Before wading deep into the Jennifer vs. Angelina-style feud that is the talk of the NHL, return to the skills competition at All-Star weekend last month to see if it sheds any light on that contretemps Sunday between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
As you probably recall, the YouTube moment of that frigid Montreal evening occurred on the breakaway challenge or whatever the NHL calls its version of the NBA's slam dunk competition. Before his final breakaway, Ovechkin -- with the aid of Russian players, notably his rival, Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh -- put on a Tilley hat adorned with a Canadian flag, donned oversized sunglasses, took a swig on a bottle of Gatorade and skated in on goal while handling the puck between his normal right-handed stick and a left-handed one. For the 21,273 at the Bell Centre, it was a delightful moment, a bit of hockey slapstick that played to the crowd.
Now, let's rewind the tape and examine the props:
Tilley hat: a Canadian product.
Canadian flag: 100 per cent Canadian (although if Ovechkin really wanted to play to the locals, he also would have stuck a Quebec flag in his chapeau).
Gatorade: who, in Canada, makes commercials for that sports drink? Yes, Crosby.
Now maybe the little vaudeville turn was nothing more that Ovechkin's way of announcing publicly that whatever problems he's had with Malkin -- and they have had issues -- have been ironed out. But another reading of Ovechkin's shtick is less benign.
Maybe this comes from having misspent some of my youth listening to Beatles records backwards to glean the hidden messages ("I buried Paul"), but the elaborate pantomime can also be viewed as an inside joke among the Russians aimed squarely at Crosby, who was suffering from a knee injury but had flown in to be present at the NHL's big corporate weekend.
Of course, if this act really was a jibe at Crosby, the NHL milch cow whom Alexander Semin, Ovechkin's road roommate in Washington, has said is over-promoted, we won't know unless Ovechkin cops to it. But we do know this: there is a genuine rivalry between these fabulous players who entered the league simultaneously after the owner's lockout.
While it's nothing like Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard, who shared a position (right wing) in a six-team league, there are enough legs to propel Crosby vs. Ovechkin for at least a decade. Their rivalry is intriguing not because of its ferocity but its subtleties. Like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who joined the NBA in 1979, the two share an awareness that the growth of hockey rests jointly on their shoulders. To that extent, they are as much partners in a grand design as they are rivals.
But in playing on teams with a history -- Pittsburgh and Washington always seemed to bump into each other during the playoffs -- they have been tugged into different corners of the hockey firmament, places their temperaments were destined to lead them.
Consider Crosby. No player since Wayne Gretzky has been better prepared for greatness. He is skilled, tough and dependable. If Ovechkin thinks Crosby whines too much, he is tarring the Penguins captain with a mostly outdated reputation that was established his rookie year and is way overblown. Crosby might loose his emotions too often, but bigger bellyachers in the NHL -- Anaheim's Teemu Selanne and Buffalo's Derek Roy, to name two -- generally get a free pass. (And never forget that Gretzky himself was not above a bit of strategic whining.)
Now consider Ovechkin. He's a force of nature, as improvisational as Crosby is programmed. The Capitals left winger is the most exciting player in the game since Gilbert Perreault, maybe even Bobby Orr, and if at times there appears there is not enough mustard in the world to smear on this guy, well, make ours with sauerkraut.
If Crosby, who is 23 months younger than Ovechkin but often seems a decade older, takes umbrage at The Ovy Show, he should let it go. There isn't going to be much backup because the hockey world has been smitten by Ovechkin's skill and conspicuous joy. The bumping by the stars at the Washington bench last Sunday in the Capitals' convincing win against Pittsburgh was not exactly a dustup.
Let's see: a Crosby check, an Ovechkin headlock, an Ovechkin dismissive wave. Think of it as the Thrilla in Vanilla. (If you want star players going at it, take another look at the Jarome Iginla-Vincent Lecavalier fight during the 2004 Stanley Cup final.) But it did add a soupcon of spice to the matinee, a degree of public disdain that now makes all Penguins-Capitals games as must-see as Red Sox-Yankees.
And if you think the subtle swipe at Crosby during the All-Star skills is strictly in On the Fly's overtaxed imagination, note that Sunday, for the first time in memory, Ovechkin did not physically hound Malkin during a game but kept going after Canada's favorite hockey son.
PHOTO GALLERY: The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry year-by-year
Renney will rise again
When he was coaching the Vancouver Canucks, Tom Renney had one of those inspirational messages in the tunnel outside his dressing room. The thing was maybe 50 words, so prolix that the Canucks should have hired Evelyn Wood as an assistant coach. (Wood was famous speed-reading expert. Excuse this old guy's reference.)
Clearly Renney was overmatched in his first NHL head coaching experience, but he was a changed man when he was moved behind the bench after holding an organizational job with the New York Rangers. He better understood how to deal with professionals. Most impressively, he knew how to reach Jaromir Jagr, a problematic star who seemed to need some coddling in order to pull all his tricks out of his seemingly bottomless bag.
The Rangers' Prague-on-the-Hudson approach after the lockout worked initially -- credit president Glen Sather for that -- but the ranks of the Czechs were culled, Jagr was often hurt, and New York went back to its bad pre-salary cap habits of overpaying mismatched pieces.
In the end, Jagr exiled himself to Siberia and the Rangers' ability to score goals simply vanished. The team looked uncomfortable playing for a coach whose background with Hockey Canada made him a devotee of the take-care-of-your-own-end-first approach. Ultimately that has been the knock against all the Hockey Canada coaches -- Dave King, St. Louis' Andy Murray, Renney. They seem to be quality men. They are superb tactical and technical coaches. They provide structure, which can make bad teams decent in a hurry. But they have yet to find a way to take them far at the NHL level.
Renney's expertise should not go begging. He will be a first-rate coach again in the NHL. In the meanwhile, Team Canada should make sure that he is part of its staff at the 2010 Olympics. His insight and calm demeanor can be invaluable in the Vancouver cauldron.
Now John Tortorella, emotionally a yin to Renney's yang, runs the show on Broadway. When he was coaching the Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004, he made sure the maker of Tampa Bay's inspirational signs never suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome.
A Tortorella favorite: "Safe is death."