Canada’s Love-Hate for Crosby, Russia’s Love for Ovechkin

The Sochi Olympics are 19 days away and hockey fans around the world anxiously wait to see their countries go head-to-head on the world’s biggest stage for international hockey.  With the countries having rounded out their rosters, the teams shift their focus to the task at hand and all striving for that elusive gold medal and international hockey supremacy.

Four years ago, Canada won the gold medal in front of a hometown crowd in Vancouver with what has been come to be known as the “golden goal” in overtime.  Sidney Crosby, the greatest hockey player in the world today from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, potted the winner and sent millions of Canadians to their feet.  Every hockey player heading into Sochi is hoping to have their golden moment in trying to bring the gold medal home to their people.

With Sidney Crosby announced today as the captain of the 2014 squad that heads to Sochi, the reception to this news has been met with applause and groans.  And it is this divide within Canada and their fan base that raises an interesting perspective on two of the games best.

Two players will be at the forefront of these games, as they have been in the NHL since entering the league; Sidney Crosby for Canada and Alexander Ovechkin for Russia, who now has the opportunity to play in front of his hometown crowd.

Much will be written leading up to the games on who is the favorite, who made the teams and who didn’t, and no team will be more scrutinized than the defending champion Canadians.  A four goal performance from Martin St. Louis last night, who was left off the Canadian roster, has continued to ignore the conversation around who didn’t – as opposed to who did.

Alexander Ovechkin is a beloved figure in Russia, a man who now carries the torch for a proud hockey nation.  He is the most dominant goal scorer in the league today and has been since joining the Washington Capitals.  However, a lack of playoff success has plagued Ovechkin and his Capitals and he has yet to advance deep into the playoffs in his career, a detail that does not get in the way of Ovechkin being endeared by his fans in Russia.

Crosby on the other hand, in his career thus far has won on almost every level. He has a Stanley Cup, he has the Olympic Gold and has the endless individual accolades that Ovechkin shares as well.  What seems to separate 87 from 8 is winning.  But I’m not convinced that Crosby is as beloved in his country as Ovechkin is in his.  Don’t get me wrong, Canada loves Sidney Crosby.  Hockey rinks across the country are filled with novice through bantam-aged kids practicing their own golden goal and seeing themselves as Sid the Kid.  But a sentiment exists around Crosby that I have never been able to understand.  The love for Ovechkin in Russia is more unanimous whereas in Canada Crosby enjoys a love that is consensus.

Sidney Crosby’s hockey intellect is second to none.  Not only can he perform the game at the highest level, he understands it and possesses a hockey IQ that is as good as anyone.  In the process of the game, if he sees an opportunity to get the upper hand and give his team a better opportunity to win, much like any leader he is going to take it.  There was an incident back in 2009 when the Penguins were playing the Capitals in the playoffs and during game two the hometown Washington crowd littered the ice with hats after an Ovechkin hat-trick, a game in which Crosby tallied his own hat-trick.  It was a one-goal game at the time and the hats did not stop, they kept coming. The face-off ended up being delayed while the fans continued to throw hats on the ice. Crosby ultimately skated over to the refs and asked for a delay-of-game penalty against the home team as a result of the actions of the fans. He was denied this and then lambasted after the game for making such a request, by many in his own country.  I didn’t understand it at the time and still don’t.  It was an intelligent strategy to try to get his team back even with the Capitals based on current rules that the league has.  He wasn’t asking they come up with a new rule.

But this was just another incident of Crosby being perceived as a whiny kid.  It’s a perception that dogs him across the United States, with the exception of the city of Pittsburgh.  But it is also one that exists in Canada.  If I talk to ten people who are hockey fans, I’d be surprised if more than half of them don’t respond to some level of Crosby conversation without resorting to some of this around his on-ice antics.

Fans fault players who lack passion; players are faulted when they have passion.  It’s not like Crosby doesn’t drop the gloves and fights his own fights, and when he has he’s fared well.  The kid might not be able to grow much of a mustache or a respectable playoff beard, but he’ll back up his words with actions.

Heading into the Sochi Olympics, Russia will surround their star and drape him in love and adoration as they hope he can provide hockey gold to their country.  Canada will go into the games with the unanimous support of their country and consensus support of their biggest star and best chance to repeat as champions.

I don’t understand it, nor do I even want to.

Initially, I thought it was a matter of options. Canada has so many talented hockey players that they lack patience with some because they know they could send two teams to the Olympics who would both compete for medals.  But Russia isn’t exactly lacking in bona fide hockey superstars.

There have been no shortage of Canadian superstars who have played in American markets for their careers, so his presence in Pittsburgh doesn’t explain it.

I’m left with the notion that Canadian hockey fans are purists and the passion that Crosby displays on the ice whether it is yelling at teammates, officials or opposition; it’s considered a slight to the game.