Alex Ovechkin has always played the game with passion. That is never more evident than when he scores. From the gap-toothed smiles to his joyous slamming into the boards, Ovechkin’s celebrations can be contagious. They also can rub people the wrong way.
An old school mentality still permeates through hockey that says any semblance of a personality should be discouraged, everything should be about the team and every goal should be celebrated with only tepid excitement so as not to show anyone up or to make it about you. Long-time rival Sidney Crosby, for example, is seen as the quintessential hockey star, a good ol' Canadian boy with a more muted personality who at most will celebrate with a fist pump before quickly skating to the bench. Ovechkin is essentially the antithesis of that. As a result, he has faced a lot of criticism from the “old guard,” people who find it important to maintain this old school mentality within the game.
But not Phil Esposito.
Esposito is one of the all-time greats of hockey. His 717 goals rank sixth all-time, he is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and two-time Hart Trophy winner as MVP. The 77-year-old Ontario native has all the credentials of an old school hockey authority.
So what are Esposito’s thoughts on Ovechkin and the way he plays the game? He loves it.
“I like somebody who shows passion doing something that he loves to do,” Esposito. “Sometimes I get kind of aggravated with North Americans because they take it for granted when they score. They don’t show that excitement and passion as much as Alex does.”
That certainly flies in the face of the Don Cherry disciples who think anything more than a smile is over the top.
Ovechkin has never been shy about his love for scoring and that is evident in the excitement he shows after every single goal. To Esposito, that kind of passion was necessary for a Russian player to dominate in the NHL.
You don’t have to talk to Esposito very long before he brings up the Summit Series. The Summit Series was a series of eight games between Canada and the Soviet Union played in 1972.
Four games were played in Canada and four were played in the Soviet Union. The Soviets won twice in Canada, but Canada ultimately won four out of eight games with three losses and one tie.
Esposito described what he felt was a seminal moment for Russian hockey.
“I remember in 1972 when we were over (in Moscow), we beat them in Russia (in the Summit Series),” Esposito said, “Boris Kulagin, who was one of the (Soviets’) coaches, said, ‘Until we match the passion of the North Americans, we won’t beat them.’ Well, guess what?
“Alex Ovechkin, when he first came in, I loved him. When he scored, and he still does it today, he loves it. He jumps up and down. A couple of times I thought he was going to jump over the glass.”
According to Esposito, it's the passion, for which Ovechkin was so often criticized earlier in this career, that could end up leading him to become the greatest scorer of all-time.
“I think that’s why Alex is going to score probably another 150 goals, maybe more, before he retires,” Esposito said. “He’s got a chance to catch Wayne, there’s no doubt about that. And rightly so. But it’s his passion to score, his passion to win. And I like that. I like that a lot.”
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