With the start of the NHL season, our new NHL columnist offers his predictions and highlights a rising Washington Capital

By Dax Bauser

There have been many great ambassadors for the sport of hockey, most notably Wayne Gretzky. “The Great One” did more for the recognition of the sport than any single athlete has done for any team sport. He did it with skill and grace while breaking almost every conceivable scoring record on the books. Then there’s Super Mario Lemieux whose size and power combined with raw skill turned around a town that had given up on hockey. He showed us all loyalty and strength in the face of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and is a hero to many. Steve Yzerman, the quietest and humble of men, played the sport with a determination that was second to none. His natural leadership qualities were a source of confidence and respect throughout his years in “Hockey Town”.
But they‘re gone. Retired and coaching the Coyotes, owning the Pens and climbing the ladder to GM status in Detroit. Fortunately, post lockout NHL has seen an infusion of some great youthful talent ready to take the reigns from they’re predecessors. Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins is shaping up to be just as good as the hype that surrounded his #1 draft selection in 2005 and the skillful 50 goal scorer Iginla of the Calgary Flames both have reasons to be considered for the title of ambassador of hockey. But there is another, a unique, skillful and relatively unknown Russian.
Enter stage right Alex Ovechkin, the 2007-2008 scoring champ and enigmatic playmaker for the Washigton Capitals. He’s confident, talented and expressive to say the least. If he’s not jumping three feet into the air with his arms flailing and his stick waving after a goal then he’s jumping face first into the side boards celebrating with the fans and his teammates. In a sport that requires an immense amount of endurance and skill there sometimes can appear to be a lack of celebratory skill. The great thing about Ovechkin is it’s a completely honest reaction. He puts on no airs, he’s not trying to showboat, say the way TO might. It’s his natural spirit flowing. It’s contagious too. Did anyone notice how the rest of his teammates toward the end of the season were jumping up and down and pounding the sideboards with their bodies after scoring? I was waiting for Boudreau, the Caps coach, to jump off the bench himself and slide across the ice into the boards.
His infectious personality is only one component to his growing appeal inside and outside hockey circles. Pure and creative talent is another. He can make plays that leave you staring in disbelief. If you have any doubt about it go to Youtube and enter “Ovechkin the goal”. After being pushed to the ice with his back away from the goal he does a full twist on the ice and backhands the puck in the net. This is the face the NHL needs.
His 163 goals in his first three seasons are bested only by Mike Bossy (173) and Wayne Gretzky (198). He earned the scoring title last year with an amazing 65 goals and 112 point total. He almost single handedly brought the Capitals out of obscurity last year and into the playoffs, though the supporting cast is stronger and more experienced this year. Last years playoff run increased ticket sales in the Capital city as the fickle fans finally had something to cheer about, and don’t doubt that was in large part due to Ovechkin.
He’s won five major awards in his short three year NHL career which include Rocket Richard, Art Ross, Lester Pearson and Hart Trophies. It’s no wonder he’ll be staying in Washington until he’s 35 signing a jaw dropping deal for $124 million. The Caps realize what they have in Ovechkin and have protected their interests with an unheard of 13 year contract.
His love of hockey is undeniable, his talent almost indescribable and his personality leaves you rooting for him and always wanting to see more. With an enthusiasm unmatched by superstars in a sport known for its mental toughness and long enduring season, Ovechkin is fresh, exciting and unedited. Ovechkin is just what this sport needs to invigorate those who love it and garner the attention of those who don’t know much about it. Always last in popularity of the major sports Ovechkin has shown that in a city that loves its Redskins and Wizards there is surely room for hockey and the Capitals. I hope that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is paying attention and recognizes what he has in Ovechkin because he IS the new face of the NHL.
The Short of it: Predictions for the 2008-9 NHL Season
It’s pretty simple. The Detroit Red Wings will be the 2008-9 Stanley Cup Champions! It’s not just my prediction, most hockey publications are predicting it, those inside the league are predicting it, hell my Mom is predicting it and she barely watches hockey. They have a non stop offense with three 30 goal scorers and three 20 goal scorers. Just when you think they couldn’t get any better they sign free agent Marian Hossa and his great two-way play making ability. Opposing defenses can count on few breaks. On defense Lidstrom won his 6th Norris Trophy as best offensive defenseman and with Chris Osgood in net they are a powerhouse of talent, physicality and skill. Simple, right?
Nothing is ever that simple though, not in sports. Just go back to February and Super Bowl XLII and see how the underdog New York Giants upset the unbeaten New England Patriots. Championships are never guaranteed and as with any sport the National Hockey League has its share of contenders in the mix this year other than the mighty Red Wings.
The surprise winner of the year will be the Chicago Blackhawk’s. They strengthened their defense in the off-season with the addition of Brian Campbell and his 62 points last season. Rookie of the Year Patrick Kane and runner up Jonathan Toews lead a capable offense and will both have spectacular seasons. With two star goaltenders in Huet and Khabibulin they’re set to meet the Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals.
The Eastern Conference will be a much closer fight. The Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will all fight it out for a chance to dethrone the Red Wings from hoisting Lord Stanley again. The Habs should come out on top, though the Pens and Caps will surely have something to say about it as they hold the two most prolific players in the game in Crosby and Ovechkin.
With the two extraordinary talents in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin this year’s title of scoring champ is going to be amazing to watch. They’re not even in their prime and are two of the most exciting, talented and consistent point scorers in the league. Crosby has garnered more media attention with his boyish good looks, thick wavy black hair and sparkling white smile and did so even before he ever stepped foot in an NHL rink. Ovechkin’s scoring title last year and his contagious and real personality has magnetically pulled the media toward him and for good reason. It’s going to be a pleasure to see how much better these true talents can get.
From goals to great saves, from the skill and speed to the energetic and physical men that play the game I am so excited for another season. If you’re new to hockey go check out a game live in a city near you. I can’t make any guarantees but I think you might find it to be a diamond in the rough. A fast paced, action packed, physical and emotional experience that leaves you wanting more. A guy or gal couldn’t ask for anything more.