1978, the middle of June. My father and I agree to disagree. He remains unconvinced that a teen aged Canadian ice hockey sensation named Wayne Gretzky will amount to much on leaving the junior ranks. Too small, too slow, he concludes.
I beg to differ. I predict the young phenom will star as a professional, will continue to shatter scoring records.
And, in this case at least, my instincts prove correct. Gretzky, “the Great One,” becomes the ultimate magician, an open ice wizard whose scoring exploits beggar belief. Over a twenty-year career in the NHL, en route to numerous Stanley Cups, MVPs, and All-Star awards, he dominates the sport like no other.
Still, records are made to be broken. Even those once or still deemed unassailable, such as Gretzky’s 894 total goals.
To wit, enter one Alexander Ovechkin, merely the finest Russian born player of all time. The so called “Great8”, in reference to his jersey number. Drafted first overall in 2004 by the Washington Capitals, he immediately leaves his mark. 6’3”, a rugged 230 pounds, he neatly balances toughness and extreme physicality with superb skills and finesse. In his own way a creative, captivating entertainer, he is equally passionate and tenacious. Winner himself of a Stanley Cup in 2018, named the league’s best player on multiple occasions. A nose for the net, thanks to a laser like, deadly accurate, hard, and heavy slapshot, makes him a feared opponent.
The current NHL season continues apace. Ovechkin first passes 800 goals scored, moves smartly to 811. A strong finish in 2023, and two additional 40 goal campaigns will see him take the all-time lead. See him break a record long considered unbreakable. It is an achievement he craves desperately.
Still, for me and others, for all Ovechkin’s undeniable talent and determination, a darker side exists. Whatever one’s feelings about the link between politics and sport, he is tied to the increasingly cruel and protracted Russia-Ukraine conflict, now entering its eleventh month. Without question, the bitter struggle represents the most significant threat to Europe and the entire world since the end of World War II.
Already there have been massive human costs in terms of casualties and refugees forced to flee their homeland. Any dialogue, diplomacy, and overtures for peace operate deep in the shadows of war crimes, butchery, suffering, strife, and hatred. Russian president Vladimir Putin appears to have lost touch with reality. With callous and complete disregard for loss of life, he and his minions plough a deep furrow of killing and destruction.
When or how the war will end no one knows. Ukraine remains defiant, its courageous armed forces and citizens, supported by the NATO alliance and well marshaled by charismatic leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy, able to endure severe hardship. Prepared for a long and drawn out resistance. In return, Russia, directed by a madman, harbors plans to crush the entire country.
Without question, Ovechkin is both his nation’s greatest ever ice hockey player and most famous male athlete. And so his 2017 endorsement of “my president”, through a social media campaign called PutinTeam, is telling. Furthermore, he features in photos alongside the autocratic Putin, all the while calling for a united and strong Russia.
Even at the close of the 2021-22 NHL season, Ovechkin reiterates his support. Once again, he refers to “my president.” A somewhat tepid request for “no more war” is overshadowed by a statement he is not in politics and so not in control of the (Ukraine) situation.
Certainly, if he so chooses, he can do more. Indeed, he is uniquely positioned to be heard. Uniquely positioned to take a strong stance condemning Putin’s illegal invasion of a sovereign state. Rather than just playing the “athlete” card.
No doubt it would be uncomfortable, potentially even risky, for Ovechkin to announce publicly that “Putin is NOT my president.” Yet, surely the agonies faced by millions of Ukrainians on a daily basis, the mass graves, the relentless artillery bombardments, the severe food and electricity shortages, the shattered lives, are far more uncomfortable.
Pure and simply, “he is my president” is no longer a satisfactory answer to the horrific situation in Ukraine.
The conflict approaches its one-year anniversary. Both sides entrenched along an eastern front but planning and waiting on spring offensives. Western aid, in the form of tanks, artillery, and long range missiles, set to bolster Ukrainian attacks. Pitted against the endless supply of Russian manpower and the veiled threat of a nuclear response.
Certainly, no immediate resolution is in sight. Neither country prepared to back down, to cede territory, to sue for peace. Hostilities could very well continue for years. And, in the most horrible doomsday scenario, perhaps the war spreads across Europe, then even farther. With another apocalyptic event, to rival World Wars I and II, certain to bring the world as we know it to a grinding halt.
And, while it takes a lot to come between people and their sports, previous events and seasons over the past century have been seriously impacted. At various times, Olympic Games, Grand Slam golf and tennis competitions, the Indianapolis 500, professional football, hockey, baseball, soccer leagues have been cancelled, suspended, or shortened due to wars or pandemics.
So, back to Ovechkin, now age 37. The end of an amazing career draws nigh. He remains a dominant figure in his sport, moving inexorably towards the all-time goal scoring record.
Still, imagine if, the mark within tantalizing reach, he does not reach 895. And not because of diligent, back checking wingers, of shot blocking defencemen, of acrobatic goalkeepers.
Rather, in the ultimate irony, because of chaotic global conflict leading to the prolonged shutdown of sport all across the world.
All because of one Vladimir Putin.