- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The man has received more than his share of hosannas. He has been called the Russian Evolution and the Great 8. Google Alex Ovechkin and spectacular and you get about a million matches. Substitute incandescent and that ups the hits to nearly 7 million, almost as many as scintillating. Ovechkin—dynamic, impish, sublime, fill-in-the-blank—does not defy description as much as invite it. He demands adjectives in the same way Bruce Boudreau, his former coach with the Capitals, lends himself to casual profanity.
Now the compliments for the left wing are turning lefthanded. After making Washington fall in love with hockey, after turning the nets at the Verizon Center into D.C.'s family friendly red-light district, after filling a den full of trophies and receiving gushing superlatives, the halo that once backlit Ovechkin's six-year career is in danger of losing its glow.
"Coach killer?" he is asked. "Have you ever heard the phrase coach killer?"
"Huh?" Ovechkin replies in the darkened hallway outside the dressing room at the Capitals' practice rink.
The question is repeated.
"No," he says. "What is it?"
THE NHL coaching wheel spun dizzily last week (page 116), a 33 rpm album whirling at 78.
Within four hours on Nov. 28, Capitals general manager George McPhee dismissed Boudreau and Hurricanes G.M. Jim Rutherford fired Paul Maurice for the second time in eight years. But even before McPhee met with Washington media around 11 a.m. to announce he had canned Boudreau five hours earlier, he sent a text message to his freshly unemployed coach to ask if he were ready to take over another team. Things were percolating on the other coast. Two days later the Ducks fired 2007 Stanley Cup--winner Randy Carlyle, a fine hockey mind but a coach who wears his players to the nub, and installed Boudreau, a gregarious fellow with a lighter touch. (Not to mention, for those who recall his star turn last year on HBO's 24/7, a mouth that needs the occasional application of soap.) McPhee and Anaheim G.M. Bob Murray both said their teams needed "a different voice," suggesting to some that the Capitals and the Ducks should have simply traded coaches the way the Indians and Tigers swapped managers in 1960. Trading coaches is virtually unworkable under NHL rules, and so McPhee hired Dale Hunter.
Hunter was familiar with several of his new assistants. He had fought one of them, Dean Evason, a former center for the Whalers, three times in one period on New Year's Eve in 1985, their own Ali-Frazier trilogy on speed dial. Hunter had also tangled with ex-defenseman Jim Johnson, who was added to the staff on Nov. 29. The Capitals' new coach is the only NHL player with more than 1,000 points and 3,500 penalty minutes. He was notorious for, in the words of former teammate and current Washington associate goaltending coach Olaf Kolzig, "playing to the whistle or through the whistle he didn't hear." Kolzig's description is a sly reference to the 21-game suspension Hunter received for ambushing Islanders center Pierre Turgeon a slew of one Mississippis after Turgeon had scored a goal that essentially eliminated the Capitals from the 1993 playoffs. Hunter—square jaw, piercing blue eyes, thick hair, a little twitchy—was Chuck Norris on skates. One of four Capitals to have his number retired, he already had been in the faces of Washington players for years: His larger-than-life image, in full stride, is plastered on the north wall of the practice rink.
Hunter, who for 10 years had been coaching the London (Ont.) Knights, the junior team he co-owns, arrived last week in his one, good-for-coaching-weddings-and-funerals suit, which is blue, and a green tie. (Owner Ted Leonsis's wife, Lynn, picked out two red ties for Hunter to match the Capitals' color scheme although the Hermès labels might have been lost on the soybean farmer from Petrolia, Ont.) In any case McPhee replaced a simple man who talked blue in favor of a simpler man with a blue suit.