Alex Ovechkin is hockey’s version of LeBron James, only if James never left Cleveland — a depressing tale of an indisputably great player who seems capable of anything, anything except breaking through the suckitude of the much-maligned city he plays for. Destined for the Hall of Fame, destined to topple unbreakable records, and, sadly, all of it is diminished by having never won a championship.
Would LeBron have won a championship by now if he never went to Miami? Would he have been able to beat San Antonio or L.A. on his own? I don’t think so. How many more coaches would he have blown through by now? How many more free agents would have come and gone from Cleveland? How many GMs?
Sure, he’d probably have broken even more individual records, but imagine for a moment living in a world where LeBron, The King, now in his 13th season, was still seeking his first championship. It sounds preposterous, but that is exactly what Ovechkin is going through after 11 seasons in Washington. Coaches, goalies, GMs and styles of play have changed over the past 11 years, but the two constants in D.C. have been disappointment and Ovechkin.
Ovechkin and LeBron are otherworldly athletes who have been the best player on every team they have ever played on. Despite the vast differences in the nature of their sports, they are both expected to be champions because of their abilities — their teammates and coaches will always be ancillary.
(Even when one of their highest paid teammates, Brooks Orpik, plays the entire playoffs like he’s seeking an invitation to the Penguins’ alumni game next season, the team captain catches the blame.)
When you’re the best hockey player alive, everyone will have an opinion about you — especially Canadians. And until you win a championship, that opinion usually consists of a bunch of nerds like myself telling you what needs to change about your game and how your attitude needs to adjust. I’m not here to do that. This isn’t an assault on Ovechkin as much as it is an apology to him for landing in D.C.
You see, I’m just a fan, one who’s guilty of the thing I hate most about this city as a sports town — we have a loser mentality and our sadness and desperation is so palpable and contagious that it bleeds through to our teams. We expect the worst, they deliver.
Who’s to blame for the Caps second-round exit? Us, of course — the fans of D.C. Yahoo Sports published a eulogy for the 2015-16 Caps which included this gem:
So congratulations, D.C., you’ve ruined the best player of our generation and the rest of the hockey world now has to listen to countless #HotTakes on how he isn’t even that good. How he shouldn’t be a NHL Captain. How he does too little in the playoffs but also tries to do too much. How the Capitals would be better off without him.
Similar to everything I’ve written on this blog, it’s easy to dismiss a statement like the one above as satire, but as my grand pappy said, “Many a true word is spoken in jest.” D.C. is just Cleveland wearing a blazer, which actually makes us worse in a way. Failure in Cleveland is blue-collar, their shining star left town for a sexy beach and got his ring — they burned his jersey. Failure in D.C. is systematic, deeply rooted and laced in corruption. If Ovechkin left town and won elsewhere, the few of us who wouldn’t be happy for him would probably push our elected officials to closely examine Russian doping allegations to permanently besmirch Ovi’s name.
It sucks to be a sports fan in D.C. and it probably sucks to be an athlete here, too. New York sports media has a reputation for crushing athletes, but I think D.C. would be a far worse place to endure. New York’s cast of sportswriters is made up of failed novelists, and tabloid-driven wannabe TMZ goons who aren’t going anywhere.
Elsewhere, D.C. is a pipeline to Bristol. We attract the best sports reporters in the country but it comes with a price: They push the envelope. They are well aware of this city’s reputation for failure and they ask the tough questions, they press players. Maybe New York media can ruin your personal life, but D.C. sports media can ruin your professional life.
The desperate fans push the media, the media pushes the players and the players feel the pressure. I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in the power of a city to suck the life force from its teams. Some folks might laugh this off and say a fan base impacting a team is insane.
‘Look no further than Cleveland. They haven’t lost a game in the playoffs, they are about to win a championship and their fans are easily the most self-loathing in all of sports — they even have a Wikipedia page.’
Hold tight. Any real Cleveland fan isn’t thinking about a championship right now; they are thinking of how the sports gods are going to screw them this time around, just as we would.
LeBron and the Cavs have been the most impressive team in the NBA Playoffs through two rounds, but masochism is their fan base’s default setting and they realize they are sprinting toward a buzz saw in the west. Diving deeper into the Cleveland psyche, their truest fans can’t even enjoy the playoffs because they are far too busy worrying about which scenario is most likely to prevent LeBron from leaving again.
The beginning of LeBron and Ovechkin’s careers mirror each other: LeBron debuted in 2003, played in Cleveland for seven seasons, made the playoffs five of those seven seasons and accumulated all the individual accolades but never won a championship — people questioned his legacy. Ovechkin started with the Caps in 2005, made the playoffs in eight of eleven seasons and racked up the trophies, but never broke through in the playoffs — people question his legacy.
After seven seasons of failure, LeBron left home and immediately solidified his legacy, twice. After eleven seasons of failure, Ovechkin keeps coming back to us, and I love him for that. For some reason Ovechkin still believes in us. He believes in D.C. even when we don’t believe in ourselves. I don’t care what his contract says, if he wanted out of D.C., he would get out. He wants to win, but he wants to win here, more. Loyalty is a rare trait these days, especially in sports. The grass is always greener; there is always an easier path.
Shortly after the melancholy feeling of another season fades, D.C. sports fans are left asking, “Who can end D.C.’s championship drought?” I don’t have that answer, but if I had my druthers I’d still choose that Russian maniac who keeps coming home.
A weaker man would have left town by now.
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