Sidney Crosby vs Alex Ovechkin… for most hockey fans that statement will induce a roll of the eyes or a tired sigh. It isn’t that two of the NHL’s elite players are not worthy of conversation, far from it. It is just that the supposed rivalry between these two players has been beaten to death. It is the sure sign of someone who is still trapped in the post-lockout mid-2000′s NHL. Since that time, bigger and better teams have replaced the largely manufactured rivalry between the two players.
The rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin reached its peak during the 2011 NHL season, when the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins faced off in the Winter Classic. The entire event was built around the rivalry between the two players and their respective teams. We were treated to an epic series of HBO’s 24/7, which caused hockey fans everywhere to fall in love with Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, and crack up at the rampant use of four letter words by Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau. The 2011 Winter Classic is remembered not for Crosby vs Ovechkin, but David Steckle’s hit to Crosby’s head that likely concussed the star forward (there is some debate whether it was this hit or one sustained in the next game against Tampa Bay that did the real damage).
For four weeks, we had the Sid vs Ovi battle crammed down our throats by the NHL, HBO, and NBC. Instead of being the definitive battle royale the NHL hoped it would be, it only served to over saturate hockey fans with the rivalry. It became something we no longer wanted to hear about. Much like hockey fans would like NBC to televise other teams than just Chicago, LA, New York, Boston, and Philly or for the NHL to feature those same teams each year in the Winter Classic, hockey fans wanted the NHL to celebrate some of the other players in the league.
The other problem with the Crosby and Ovechkin rivalry was that it was manufactured by the NHL. It wasn’t any more authentic than a billing at Wrestlemania. Sure both players were elite and both teams disliked each other, but the rivalry between the two stars always had the sheen of pre-fabricated NHL / NBC hogwash written all over it.
Fortunately for hockey fans things took their natural course, and instead of a Crosby or Ovechkin led dynasty, we saw the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and the Boston Bruins turn into the new forces to be reckoned with. Hockey fans decided that they would rather celebrate the accomplishments of a team, rather than individual players. That is what separates the NHL from the rest of the other professional sports leagues. Between Crosby and Ovechkin we have one Stanley Cup. The Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings each have two since 2010. That is the more compelling story than a rivalry between two superstars who just happened to make their debut in the same season.
That doesn’t mean the NHL hasn’t attempted to fuel some team-based rivalries of their own. Wednesday “Rivalry Night” on NBC Sports sometimes features legitimate rivals like the Devils and the Rangers, the Bruins and the Canadiens; but other times it feels like it is grasping at straws to just feature some big market teams. The NHL has yet to learn its lesson from Crosby vs Ovechkin: you cannot sustain a manufactured rivalry, the ones that last decades naturally occur.
When looking back at the 2011 hockey season and the height of the Crosby vs Ovechkin rivalry, so much has changed with both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. The faces in the locker rooms have changed; Dan Bylsma was just fired this year, along with general manager Ray Shero. Bruce Boudreau was let go from Washington the following year and became the coach of the Anaheim Ducks. The Capitals are now on to their third coach since Boudreau, with former Nashville Predators head coach, Barry Trotz taking over this upcoming season.
The conversation surrounding Crosby and Ovechkin has shifted from who is the best, to which one has been the bigger coach killer. In the immediate years following 24/7, we saw the Washington Capitals enter a semi-rebuild, something from which they are still attempting to emerge from. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a tumultuous off season and it could be argued that they too are rebuilding. Both the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been unable to rebuild the supporting cast that made both teams so successful in Crosby and Ovechkin’s first five years in the league.
If the Capitals and the Penguins are able to right their respective ships, the fact that both teams are now in the Metropolitan Division could help rekindle things. However, it is unlikely we will ever see the Sid vs Ovi mania of 2011 ever again. If the Capitals and the Penguins were to face off in the playoffs, Crosby and Ovechkin would be a talking point, but it would not be the central focus as it was three years ago.