Alexander Ovechkin versus Sidney Crosby. Sidney Crosby versus Alexander Ovechkin. The debate itself and the polarization created by both players is a rivalry that any sport would kill for. They are the marketing world’s perfect storm as far as the NHL is concerned. As any hockey fan knows, there is a strong dividing line between Team Ovechkin and Team Crosby, almost as fierce as the dividing line between Team Edward and Team Jacob for the Twi-hards (I hate that I know what that even means). There are websites dedicated to comparing the two by stats and blog discussions galore trying to defend the honour of each player. What I intend to draw attention to in this post is not anything that happens on the ice (I should probably come clean and say I am definitely an Ovechkin fan), but rather the debate that surrounds both players and how they are constructed and talked about.
On the website greatesthockeylegends.com I found a lengthy debate that I think speaks very well to the different manners in which each player is framed. The opening quote from Dan Rosen (NHL.com), I think, sums it up perfectly:
Crosby is the Ivy League, scholarly centre, while Ovechkin is the big-school, big-campus, fraternity boy left-wing. Crosby is a movie star, Ovechkin is a rock star.
Let’s start with Crosby who is consistently referred to as a better team player, a better big-time performer, a more well-rounded player and, not to mention, a whiner. Ovechkin is referenced as a “game-changer”, a better individual player, a better goal-scorer and a natural talent. One particular comment I found amusing said:
Ovechkin is like a tornado on the Ice that will simply blow you away. Crosby on the other hand is like a river quiet and consistent. He just keeps coming and will wear you down.
What I find interesting is not where the dividing line falls between the players but that the comments are quite predictable from an academic standpoint. My Master’s research was heavily focused on Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, which in a nut-shell says everything from the West is developed in a superior fashion, and everything from the East is undeveloped and in transition. When I look at the Crosby/Ovechkin debate I see the same thing. Crosby is sold as the quintessential Canadian hockey player (minus the rough and tumbleness) – clean-cut, modest, unassuming and a great teammate who elevates his team. On the other hand, Ovechkin is framed as the stereotypical Russian that follows in the footsteps of other greats such as Bure, Fedorov and Mogilny – a great individual player who makes the rules as he goes and is blessed with natural talent. Crosby’s talent is framed as the result of hard work and “proper teaching”, whereas Ovechkin’s talent is, in many ways, something he was born with. As highlighted by one particular comment:
Crosby is a much better team player, and will always be the best in the world. Ovechkin is a lazy and selfish, yet talented player and nothing more.
Even Dan Rosen’s comment speaks volumes. Crosby is the nose-in-the-books student who stays up all night studying and ends up in a corner office and a power suit. Ovechkin is the big-man on campus who is the life of the party. Crosby as the movie star is definitely more aligned with the Cary Grant’s and Humphrey Bogart’s of old (possibly even a George Clooney) to Ovechkin’s Steven Tyler, Bono, or Elvis like persona. One is what we all wish our youth could be and the other is how we imagine “grown up” life would be like. Thus, as an example of Orientalism, Ovechkin has the potential for full development but Crosby is already there. It is another illustration of that from the West being “Best” and that from the East being, not necessarily least in the this case, but certainly the rival or the “Other.”
In conclusion, what I observe as the dividing line between those who cheer for Ovechkin and those who cheer for Crosby falls between where you find yourself on the spectrum of hockey progression/evolution/development. Crosby represents what hockey thinks it still is, a game immersed in a certain (and in many ways limited) understanding of honour and respect played by gentlemen. Ovechkin represents hockey of the 21st century. A game influenced by globalization that privileges neoliberalism and individual effort (mostly because flashy individuals make $$$ for all involved). In the days of Bure and Mogilny, the Russians were still seen as anomalies, they were the opposite side of the hockey coin. They brought flash to the Canadian substance and having five Russians on the same line was novel. However, a decade later, Ovechkin represents a true threat to hockey as we have known it, where having five Canadians on a line is now novel. The integration of European and former Soviet players has changed the game, whether for better or for worse is a different debate, but when people attribute Ovechkin’s skill to pure talent it is a defence mechanism used to chip away at the change that he represents. To say that Ovechkin has put in less practice time than Crosby belittles the European/Russian system of teaching and it is a common argument used against many athletes in different sports – North Americans work hard and earn their dues whereas those from overseas are blessed with talent (Similarly, literature on race articulates the same notion with white athletes positioned as hard workers and black athletes as naturally gifted. Think about the debate surrounding Peyton Manning vs. Cam Newton). Crosby represents what hockey is “supposed” to be, Ovechkin represents, perhaps, what hockey wants to be. As one commenter states:
If ovechkin was canadian, i truly believe that we wouldn’t talk about crosby the way we do now.
I agree, and think that Ovechkin would probably far outshine Crosby in the fame department if he were Canadian, mostly because Ovechkin fits better with the notion of hockey masculinity. However, that just shows you how flexible our loyalties can be and that this debate is heavily premised on cultural and political histories more so than flash versus substance.