Monday, February 23, 2009

A Week in the Life of a Caps Fan

If you ignore the Avalanche loss (which perhaps would be a bad idea--it exposed the inconsistent goaltending and defense that right now comprise the biggest obstacles standing in the way of a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals), last week was a hell of a seven-day stretch to be a Washington Capitals fan. Whether you're a vet at it like me (15 years and counting), or what Penguins fans like to call a"bandwagon idiot", having the world's greatest hockey player on a team that's actually kicking ass is a glorious combination. It's hard not to be excited, and hopeful. What else does DC have to look forward to, sports-wise? The Redskins are gonna suck again. The Wizards blow. The Nationals? Are we seriously gonna talk about the Nationals?

It all came to a head Sunday, when NBC televised an afternoon matchup between the Caps and Pens. Oh how I wanted to be at Verizon Center; to cheer, to scream, to laugh, to curse the refs, to head down the escalator to the Metro, spot some black-and-gold sweaters hanging from dejected shoulders and yell, "Russian Machine doesn't break, swear to Gah!" Washington won 5-2, and took home the moral victory too. On the ice, everyone in red was decking the dudes wearing white, facing only mild reprisal. The Pens best player, Evgeni Malkin, was a non-entity incarnate, while Sidney Crosby was subject to endless taunting and the occasional jab/smoosh. This isn't exactly new territory for the young man that the NHL has anointed their savior above all, but he never had the real best player in the league getting in his face and styling on him.

It's akin to Gretzky and Lemieux getting into a tussle, which as I can recall, never happened. It's an occurrence so beastly that even ESPN's daily battle of the blowhards, Pardon the Interruption, had to talk about it. Or mainly Wilbon talked some sense about the rivalry while Kornheiser parroted some pro-Cosby patter and admitted that his daughter loves Ovechkin. (Any Caps fan who sees Kornheiser at the VC this season has carte blanche to knock him stupider with Horn Guy's instrument.) Only the most astonishing, breathtaking of NHL events can cause the Worldwide Leader to take notice. The fact that within the span of one week, actual on-ice activity managed to crack the stained glass of Sportscenter is nothing short of incredible. No shock that both times, Alexander Ovechkin stood at the epicenter.

Wait, you don't know about what happened earlier on in the week? When Washington played Montreal?

Ovy scored only the second greatest goal of his young career, a dazzling display of skill, puck-smarts, speed, and stick-to-it-iveness that showed the interested world that here, finally, was the true greatest player in the National Hockey League. He never lived in Mario Lemieux's basement, never was given team captaincy while a teenager, doesn't have English as his first language. He just loves to play the game he's superb at, and it's about goddamn time the league had a guy who not only could operate at a maximum skill level, but also hits like a tank, runs his mouth, and celebrates goals--his, his teammates--with tackles, blown kisses, leaps, and yes, Hulk Hogan-esque crowd-baiting. He's got personality, sure, but it's more than that. It's the X factor when trying to explain why Ovechkin has surpassed Crosby.

It's duende.

Duende is a Spanish word used primarily to describe art and artists. It indicates soul, but goes beyond that. The Larousse Spanish-English Dictionary translates duende as Goblin, elf. There is also the term tenor duende, to have a certain magic. Per Christopher Maurer, editor of "In Search of Duende," the elements of duende are: "irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical." Maurer's book lists dance, music, and bullfighting as the arenas most likely to attract duende. But really, it's not hard to see it in sports as well.

John McEnroe had it; Jimmy Connors did not. Babe Ruth for sure possessed duende; not so much Roger Maris. Lebron James has it; Kobe Bryant does not. As you can see, the metaphysical concept that is duende does not apply to mere talent. The athlete visited by the "goblin" exudes this ineffable quality even in the throes of failure. Boston Globe columnist George Frazier described such a scenario perfectly: "It was what Ted Williams had even when striking out, but Stan Musial lacked when hitting a home run."

And that, friends, is what ultimately separates Ovechkin and Crosby. It is no knock on Crosby, but rather an invitation to marvel at Ovechkin. He is an anomaly in pro hockey, while Crosby is another in a long line of humble Canadians who gives assembly line answers in interviews. Even now that their feud has spilled over into the media, each man delivers what you would expect.

"What I can say about him?" Ovechkin said. "He is a good player, but he talks too much."

"Like it or lump it, that's what he does," Crosby said when asked about Ovechkin's showmanship. "Some people like it, some people don't. Personally, I don't like it."

("Like it or lump it?" How Marge Simpson of you, Sid. I guess I'm just gonna have to go get in the crawl space again!)

Those tsk-tsking Alex Ovechkin for his expressive brand of hockey need to understand that this is beyond arrogance, a sense of entitlement, or age/cultural differences. He is made of different stuff, material that fits together in only a select few men and women (oh yes...Babe Didrikson had duende. Danica Patrick, no. But hey, she's got that GoDaddy sponsorship going for her). Allow me to repeat Maurer's explanation: the elements of duende are: "irrationality, earthiness, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical." It's the third element that I think gets very overlooked when evaluating Ovechkin's on-ice character, and perhaps this is borne out of respect. But the fact is that Sergei Ovechkin pushed his little brother to play hockey again after dropping out while still only a pre-teen. And the fact is that Sergei Ovechkin died without seeing Alexander play in the NHL. Knowledge of the fragility of life streaks behind Ovechkin as he makes play after incomparable play. As he irritates the traditionalists with his joyous post-score behavior. As he waves dismissively at the Boy Who Would Be King.

As he plays hockey.

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