Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"What can I do? It's the Olympics!" -Alex Ovechkin, my new viking hero

Alexander Ovechkin, pre-"C." Photo from
Maybe you've been watching some Olympic hockey.  Maybe you've seen Ovie's stupendous hit on Jaromir Jagr in the Russia/Czech Republic game on Sunday. 

In the words of Mike Emrick "talk about dictating the terms!"

In Alexander Ovechkin's words, "I know it was a strong hit, but what can I do?  It's the Olympics."

In my words, "My hero!"  

Okay, I'm not saying that this is the way we should operate in everyday life in the twenty-first century. But in Scandinavia back in the day, life was hard, almost like the winter Olympics. The weather was cold. Winters were long and dark. You could expect famine, disease and/or injury, and it was only a matter of time before you would be attacked by others who were equally as desperate as you. Survival was a pressing issue in a way that isn't these days for most of us who are just watching the games on TV. 

Being a leader meant taking care of business. Your people had to know that, when the chips were down, you would defend them and their interests to the death. And if you wanted to remain a leader, you had to earn their trust again and again. "Turning the other cheek" meant catastrophe for you and yours. Showing mercy to your enemies could result in disaster for your friends or family.  

Your neighbor's sheep are grazing on your side of the fence? Get them out of there by any means necessary! And don't miss the opportunity to teach your neighbor a lesson while you're at it. You literally can not afford to let him think that he can get away with this sort of thing. Your life, your family's lives, the lives of your entire household depend on your sheep getting enough to eat. The other guy's flock is his own problem.

Jagr at a happier moment.  Possibly a viking hero as well.  His comment on the big hit: "Of course I saw [Ovechkin coming]. I wanted to make a play...The hit doesn't hurt. The mistake hurts because they scored a goal on that play...It was a horrible feeling.  I felt like I let the guys down. But that's the sport." Quote from interview by John Dellapina and Photo from Wikipedia Commons. 

If Ovie had let Jagr - five-time NHL leading point scorer, seven-time NHL all-star, winner of two Stanley Cups and various other trophies - waltz uncontested into Russia's defensive zone, to a one-on-one against his goaltender, Jagr might very well have tied the game. Ovie couldn't stand idly by and let that happen. This is the Olympics, for heaven's sake! Instead, he took drastic action and his hit led directly to a fabulous pass by Semin and a goal by Malkin which brought the score to 3-1 in favor of the Russians. The Czechs never recovered.

But it's Ovechkin's comment that says it all. "What can I do?  It's the Olympics!"  
It not only expresses the sense of obligation that he felt but also a necessity, indeed, an inevitability. Yes, the hit was hard, but it had to be. There was nothing else he could do. It's almost as if the fact of it exists outside of Ovechkin himself, as an entity unto itself.  Almost as if the man is just an agent for some requirement of fate.  

In hockey as in viking-era Scandinavia, it helps if a leader is in synch with the supernatural, with fate. In the words of Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, "there are certain individuals, that...good fortune follows them...but they [also] make their own good fortune..." He was speaking of young Washington prospect John Carlson after he scored a goal in sudden-death overtime to win the World Juniors championship earlier this year - but he could have been speaking of Ovechkin.

This link with fate in no way takes away from Ovechkin's own courage and initiative - on the contrary, these were the very qualities that allowed him to act. People who don't like The Man - and there are plenty of those - will say that it's just his bravado, or his arrogance or something like that. But of course - it takes a dose of arrogance, or we could call it self-confidence - to step outside of what is commonly done and to take fate into your own hands. To be the one who takes on the responsibility to lead is to call attention, both good and bad, to yourself. Ovechkin does it so often! The remarkable thing is that his "taking care of business"  so often seems to be laced with absolute joy and lightheartedness. Maybe that's part of what allows him to "synch up" with fate so regularly.

So what else do hockey players and vikings have in common?  
  • Helmets (without horns). (Unless you count goal horns.)

  • Habitat (cold and ice).  

  • Beards (during the playoffs).

  • Beer. (Vodka?)
Ovie's mom, Olympic basketball gold medalist Tatyana Ovechkina, knows a few things about bravery and strength.  She has been quoted as saying something to this effect: "To be a hockey player, you have to be both brave and strong. Alex is brave and strong." 
That's pretty Viking-like, too.