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

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The Independent Online

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