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

American Way

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

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August  

Ferguson: The sad truth is that Michael Brown was killed because he was a black man

Bonnie Greer
A protestor poses for a  

Ferguson verdict: This isn't a 'tragedy'. This is part of a long-running genocide of black men in America

Otamere Guobadia
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital