Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Great Eight

As promised, here is yet another sports-related blog. I thought I'd throw the warning out early so those of you that don't want to read, can stop and get back to gaming or knitting or whatever suits your fancy. Personally, I prefer cross stich over knitting, but I digress. Tonight marks the beginning of a two-game road trip for my hometown Washington Capitals. If this is the first time you've visited my blog, I'm avid about two things: gaming and sports. Or at least I'll blog a lot about both. I've been a season ticket holder for the Capitals for two years now, and that gives me a certain spin to the game that most fans may not have. The better the team does the more value my tickets have, so it becomes an economic issue as well. I was terrible at Econ, though. I understand supply and demand, and that's about it. In this scenario, the better the Capitals do, the better my tickets sell. I've attended about six games this season. By this time last year, I'd been to twice that. The Caps also had a multi-game losing streak through December of last season.

A lot has changed in that one year. I blog a great deal about Bruce Boudreau, the former Caps coach who was replaced by Hall of Famer and former Capital's player, Dale Hunter. Mr. Hunter was known, in his Caps days, as an enforcer and dirty player. While the enforcer role continues to play a large role in today's hockey, dirty playing no longer has a place. It isn't any wonder that Mr. Hunter is spending his time as a coach teaching hard work and discipline over creating an unfair advantage.

The player that has benefited the most from the coaching change is the over-hyped, underachieving Capital's Captain Alex Ovechkin, here in DC and in hockey circles known as 'The Great Eight.' Adorned with the number eight on his sweater, Ovechkin can skate circles around even the best of the National Hockey League (NHL). Over the last two years, former coach Mr. Boudreau asked the team to play less offensively and focus on defense. While the message hasn't changed, it couldn't be clearer now that Mr. Hunter has taken over. In an often-highlighted incident, ironically against the Anaheim Ducks where Mr. Boudreau currently coaches, Ovechkin was benched and from that moment, Mr. Boudreau's days were numbered. When Mr. Hunter took over, he put his own system in, which is not significantly different than any other hockey system, but with a different voice, the effect is apparent. And it is no more apparent than with the performance of the multi-million dollar super star, Alex Ovechkin.

the great eight
Mr. Hunter took over in late November, but with a little over a month for the system to sink in, the top Washington players have come into their own. Ovechkin has scored five goals in the last three games, having come into December rather cold. He's taking more shots on goal and putting more hits on opposing players. I'll knock on wood and say it may finally be safe to say that Ovechkin is showing signs of his former self. In his first few years, Ovechkin has landed many of the most lauded NHL trophies, including the MVP trophy twice, the Hart trophy. Ovechkin has also been known to vie for the most goals in a season more than once.
Ovechkin is a game changing player. To watch him over the past two years as he simmered, on the very edge of greatness, but never crossed the threshold was painful. While I've had a tendency to defend Mr. Boudreau for his efforts, leading the Capitals to be the playoffs in four consecutive seasons after a timeless drought, there must be something to be said about communication. I won't go back on my belief that his team stopped playing for him, they absolutely did, and it was immature of them. But what Mr. Hunter has accomplished may pay dividends that Mr. Boudreau actually earned.

I can't possibly speak intelligently about handling a player, or a person, who makes over $100 million dollars, so I certainly don't envy the position of either coach, but a fresh voice has spoken volumes to the players. In the off-season, the Capitals signed both Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble (one of my favourite players and a southpaw), to extended contracts. Add to that the massive contract awarded to Nicklas Backstrom and it is a mystery how the Capitals are under the salary cap. With so many high-paid players, it isn't any wonder that the Capitals are considered the underachievers of the NHL, with their captain Ovechkin in the lead.
While this blog has rambled across the inner workings of the Washington Capitals, the focus should be obvious, where the captain goes, the rest of the team follows. Alex Ovechkin has played the role of petulant child earlier this season, and he strikes me as the kind of man who doesn't hear 'no' very often. Having met him a few times, he always seems polite, but reserved. As I have watched him over the last few games, live against the New York Rangers on the 28th of last month, I feel like I'm seeing an old friend. Not the Ovechkin of late, hamstrung by being asked to do something unfamiliar and forget what made him great, but being able to be the 'bull' on the ice that he's always been. As I struggle to stay awake for the late start of the Capitals playing the Sharks, I hope to see my old friend, playing and winning and hopefully one day soon bringing Sir Stanley's Cup to the Nation's Capital.