It is difficult -- actually, it may be impossible -- to not compare the NHL's upcoming Winter Classic to a heavyweight title bout. Before most sports fans list the two teams competing on New Year's Day -- the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals -- they'll tell you that Saturday's game is going to be a gutter war between the two greatest hockey players on the planet: Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
Which, on one level, is fair enough. Not only have Crosby and Ovechkin collected every important trophy the NHL has to offer (well, Ovechkin still hasn't sipped from that big silver cup yet), but both men have worn gold medals: Crosby's from the recent 2010 Winter Olympics and Ovechkin's from the 2008 IIHF World Championships. When these two men captained their teams against each other in the second round of the 2009 NHL playoffs, the series exceeded the hype that began building during both players' rookie season in 2005.
So if anyone entering Heinz Field's turnstiles on New Year's Day says either Crosby or Ovechkin is the best hockey player in the world, they'll both be right.
The fans bundled up in red snowsuits that Saturday afternoon will tell you that if God played hockey, he'd want to play center on Alexander Ovechkin's line. The fans wearing black, gold, navy blue, baby blue and off-white (it sucks when your retro jerseys don't match your team's primary colors, huh?) will tell you Sidney Crosby is the greatest hockey player since God last did play hockey. (God's surname, they'll assure you, is "Lemieux.")
But unlike boxing, it's difficult to gauge who's the best in hockey. When Mike Tyson used to knock someone out in the first few seconds of a fight, we knew the guy looking for his missing teeth on the canvas was not the best. But while it makes for a great marketing campaign, the head-to-head action between Crosby and Ovechkin will probably only last as long as one of those Tyson fights did back in the late 1980s.
Because Sid and Ovie play different positions (center and left wing respectively), comparisons aren't easy. What's more, since line changes happen as frequently as The X plays Pearl Jam songs, the two best hockey players in the galaxy will only share the same ice for a handful of minutes. But that's not stopping the NHL from promoting the Winter Classic as a battle of individuals ... and who can blame them? Sid the Kid and Ovie even have their own reality-show platform, HBO's 24/7 (a program that began, perhaps not coincidentally, by hyping up big boxing events).
In the series -- as in much of the media coverage both stars have earned over the years -- Crosby portrays the straight-laced, baby-face protagonist to Ovechkin's self-loving, bikini-brief-wearing heel. Because Ovechkin speaks with a thick Russian accent -- just like the villains in Cold War-era action movies -- it's easy to make him out as the bad guy. Hollywood stereotypes and political propaganda aside, Ovie does a great job of being the bad guy on his own. How many players skid to a stop during a pre-game skate to purposely shower a kid with ice shavings? Earlier this year before a playoff game, Ovechkin did just that to a youth-hockey mite waving a Montreal Canadiens flag in a pre-game ceremony.
This was not the first time Ovie rubbed the Great White North the wrong way. Following Russia's overtime defeat of Canada in the gold-medal game at the 2008 IIHF World Championships -- held in Canada, mind you -- Ovie skated to the middle of the rink, dug the heel of his skate blade into center ice and chipped out a Canadian dollar (a "lucky loonie") that was frozen into the surface to bring Team Canada some good mojo. On Canadian television, Ovechkin later joked that he was going to make a necklace out of the coin.
Canada got the last laugh, or at least the most recent, when Crosby's Canadian squad knocked Ovie's Russian team out of the 2010 Winter Olympics with an embarrassing 7-3 defeat. A few days later in the gold-medal game, Crosby scored in overtime, ensuring that he never has to pay for another donut anytime he walks into a Tim Horton's franchise. I'm sure Primanti's Bros. would be more than happy to pick up his tab as well.
Crosby and Ovechkin make such great archrivals because each is the complete antithesis of the other. On the ice, Crosby plays a meticulous, fundamental, team-first brand of hockey, and off the ice, his modest post-game interviews are so politically correct he could make a Sister of Mercy sound like a truck driver. Ovie, on the other hand, plays a me-first, balls-to-the-wall brand of hockey -- and is never afraid to tell you how awesome he is. After scoring his 50th goal of the 2009-10 NHL season, he drew the ire of hockey purists by throwing his stick on the ice and pantomiming that it was too hot to touch. Could you imagine what Ovie would have done if he had scored the gold medal-winner at the Olympics?
To date, Sidney Crosby has never been seen pushing a camera out of his face, slugging someone else's agent in a nightclub brawl, loathing Evgeni Malkin, or wearing a silly costume in the NHL's annual skills competition. Ovie might have been guilty of doing some of these things. When Crosby scores a goal, he hugs his teammates; when Ovechkin scores a goal he has his teammates hug him.
Even their physical features are the exact opposite of one another: Crosby has a perfect set of chompers, primed to be in a toothpaste commercial one day. Ovechkin is on the fast track to having the most famous toothless grin since Leon Spinks.
Capitals fans -- and there will be plenty in town this weekend because of a generous ticket allotment from the NHL -- will tell you that it's more fun to cheer for a villain than a milk-and-cookies hero. They may even try to turn Sidney into the bad guy -- pronouncing his name like he was the youngest member of the Brady Bunch -- by telling you a story about the Pens/Caps playoff series in 2009 when Crosby complained to the referees that Washington's fans were taking too long throwing their caps on the ice after Ovechkin's hat trick in Game 2. They'll also argue that if Ovie is such an egomaniac, why is his jersey No. 8, a tribute to his mom (who wore the number when she won gold medals for the USSR Olympic basketball team in 1976 and 1980) ... while Sid's jersey No. 87 is a tribute to the day he was born (Aug. 7)?
Then again, Pens fans could counter, Ovechkin just pays homage to his mom to pay homage to himself. She did give life to the world's greatest star, right?
To the thousands of fans packed into Heinz Field and to all the people watching at home on their new HD sets that they just got for Christmas, the best player on New Year's Day will be the one who plays on the winning team. And Crosby and Ovechkin -- featured in NBC's epic/apocalyptic Winter Classic commercial and staring each other down like prizefighters in all of the promotional material for Saturday's battle -- will surely have a great hand in determining that.
Everyone knows the old joke: "I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out." On Jan. 1, we'll find out what happens when we go to a hockey game, played on a football field and promoted like a heavyweight bout. Here's hoping the good guy wins.