Rupert Cornwell: Even in US ice hockey, showmanship has its limits

American Way

Share
Related Topics

What's an exuberant Russian kid, the most thrilling hockey player of the age, supposed to do when he breaks a club scoring record: put on a Vladimir Putin-like scowl, skate back to centre-ice and pretend nothing has happened? The answer would seem to be, yes – even in America where scoring celebrations in most other sports range from the indecorous to the absurd.

The thought occurred a few weeks ago, after Alex Ovechkin knocked in the goal that made him the first Washington Capitals player, and only the 20th in National Hockey League history, to have scored 50 goals in three separate seasons. The landmark feat accomplished, the 23-year-old "Ovie" (as this other O-man in Washington is known) placed his stick on the ice and rubbed his hands over it, as if warming them over a camp fire too hot to touch.

Certainly, Ovie's caper might not have been the funniest joke ever. But it was surely far more justified than the strutting and dancing that routinely follow a score, a sack, or even an interception in the NFL, or the preening that so often accompanies a baseball home run – not to mention the antics after a goal in the Premier League. Nonetheless, hockey purists were outraged.

No matter that their sport is one of the most violent around, featuring savage hits, enforcers who make the likes of Norman Hunter and Chopper Harris look tame, and quasi-institutionalised fights. When goals are scored, the stiff upper lip must prevail.

Now, I'm old enough to remember the days when the maximum wage in British football was £20 a week, and when a goalscorer earned no more than a cursory pat on the back from his team-mates before trotting back to the centre circle. I have no time for those antics by zillionaire NFL players, out of all proportion with the feat they glorify – and still less for celebrations designed to tease, taunt or humiliate the opposition.

But Ovechkin wasn't humiliating his opponents (in this case the Tampa Bay Lightning) like Babe Ruth for instance humiliated a Chicago Cubs pitcher in the legendary "called shot" incident in the 1932 World Series. After pointing to the centrefield bleachers, Ruth proceeded to smash a massive home run to that very spot, before making gestures to the Cubs' dugout as he ambled round the bases.

Still less was he doing a Muhammad Ali. When the great man composed doggerel to predict the round in which an opponent would fall, we considered it good fun. Far less amusing however was his cruel and brutal "Uncle Tom" baiting of Ernie Terrell in their 1967 fight, after Terrell had insisted on referring to Ali as Cassius Clay.

Nor was it showboating à la Reggie Jackson, the famous Yankees slugger of the 1970s, whose habit of delivering vital home runs in the World Series indeed gave him something to boast about. Such, however, was Jackson's vanity that one pitcher he faced was moved to grumble, "there ain't enough mustard in the world to cover that hotdog".

No, Ovechkin was just having a good time, with the unabashed, almost childlike enthusiasm that has made him the most charismatic figure in hockey, helping the Caps sell out every game, and give his sport its biggest TV ratings fillip in years. But the Lightning were not amused. "On our ice I took it as an insult," one thin-skinned Tampa player said. Even Washington's usually smiling coach, Bruce Boudreau (whose balding rotundity lends him a resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock), had a quiet word with his superstar winger. The incident, Boudreau let it be known, would not be repeated.

But why on earth not? The Corinthian spirit is no more, if it ever existed, even in cricket, that once supposedly most Corinthian of all sports, where sledging is now the order of the day and no Test match batsman can ever bring himself to admit he's out lbw or caught behind. As Vince Lombardi used to say, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

In this climate, the "hot stick" incident simply doesn't rate. And whatever else, the Washington Capitals are playing winning hockey, with a panache that few neutrals can resist.

Redskins aside, Washington is a national disgrace

Which brings me to the lamentable state of the rest of the capital's sports teams. The Washington Redskins may still be the institution that best unites black and white residents of this subtly segregated city, but they're also-rans in the NFL. Our basketball Wizards are so deprived of magic they're tied for last in the entire NBA. And don't mention the woeful Nationals, owners of the worst 2008 record in major league baseball, and proof of the old jest about the capital of the free world: "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." Except this latest sorry incarnation of baseball in DC is happening in the National League.

Brian Viner's column returns next week

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Programme Test Manager

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Full time German Supply Teacher...

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Francois Hollande at the Paris summit on Iraq with ministers from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on 15 September  

What's going to happen in Syria and Iraq? A guide to the new anti-Isis coalition's global strategy

Jonathan Russell
The colours of autumn leaves are among the many pleasures of the coming season  

In Sickness and in Health: As autumn arrives, more of us should wear high-vis clothes

Rebecca Armstrong
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week