Natural selection

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This article appears in the October 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Finally, hockey has a great debate. Well, this being hockey, maybe it's more like a bar
fight. Either way, Tim Hortons and ice rinks and
peewee locker rooms will be buzzing over this
argument for years: Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin? Captain Cool or Captain Morgan? The guy you
marry or the guy you date?

But before we explore deeper, let's get a few things straight: 1) This isn't a question of who's the better player -- both have won Hart and Art Ross trophies, and both are still a few years shy of their prime; 2) this is not a media creation -- there is a real rivalry. "How can there not be?" says Crosby. "We're different. He sticks out. I like to blend in." Ovechkin agrees: "It's good for the media, good for the game. I like it."

It's hard to imagine that two players so equally blessed with an abundance of skills could be so different in putting those skills on display. Crosby often seems to disappear on the ice, only to
resurface at the penultimate moment with a
brilliant pass or a crafty goal. Ovechkin sucks all the air out of the arena, drawing attention to himself even when he's roving the neutral zone.

Hockey has always been too team-oriented, too unselfish to ignite the type of blogosphere drama that has elevated other sports. But almost every fan gives a, ahem, shift about Sid and Ovie. The contrast in their styles, on and off the ice, is so complete that even casual puckheads take sides. And because of strange yet perfect circumstances that overrode hockey's team-first culture, not to mention the NHL's eager anointing of Crosby as the Next One, what was once a civil competition between young stars has risen to a boil.

Once upon a time this was a team rivalry, with the Capitals and the Penguins regularly clashing in the playoffs. In this decade, as the league spiraled toward a lockout, both clubs fell on hard times. Washington got the No. 1 pick in 2004 and took the speedy
Moscovite Alexander Ovechkin. But already the hype was centered on the 16-year-old from the Maritimes who was destined to save the sport. In July 2005, the Pens used the No. 1 pick to snare Sidney Crosby.
Because of the work stoppage, the players debuted on the same night: Oct. 5, 2005. Ovechkin scored his first NHL goal less than half an hour into his first game, then scored another to lead the Caps to an opening night win. The response from the NHL? An audio file announcing Sidney Crosby's first pro point -- a power play assist -- in a lopsided Pens loss. Um, hello? Why did a routine assist get a press
release for a No. 1 pick while two goals earned nothing for another No. 1? After the Caps complained, the NHL sent out a release on Ovechkin. But by then the league had tipped its hand. Ovechkin scored six more goals and five assists in October. But Rookie of the Month went to No. 87, who scored two goals to go with 12 assists. Speaking later at the National Press
Club in Washington, NHL commissioner Gary
Bettman said the decision to honor Crosby
was handled by the league's PR crew. That was
all Caps fans needed to hear.

Still, outside the Beltway, no one cared much about the Caps' hurt feelings. Every other sports league was doing well, thanks to stars like Kobe, Tom Terrific, Dale Jr. and Jeter. If Crosby were a bust, how would the NHL swing the spotlight away from swaths of empty seats in Atlanta and Phoenix? Crosby had to be the face of hockey. The league knew it, and Crosby, understanding his lot, did
everything right, from assuming the mantle of youngest captain in NHL history to facing all the pressure without a hint of frustration. With one false move -- in a Buffalo cab, for instance -- he would risk not only his own reputation but that of his sport. So after Crosby lost Rookie of the Year to Ovechkin, as voted by hockey writers, not PR types, he took No. 8 out for drinks.
Beyond classy, Sid was exactly what the NHL loved: a star who put team first, me second, even when the "team" was the league itself.

Soon enough, of course, NHL watchers began to wonder if Crosby deserved his anointment as league savior. Was he that good? The doubts intensified last season, when the Pens sputtered out of the gate as the Caps soared. Ovechkin was the reigning MVP and his team led the East, yet he was still quizzed constantly about Crosby. "He got sick of it," says Caps media rep Nate Ewell. Ovechkin is far more
spontaneous and, let's face it, more fun. When he received the key to the District on the steps of a government building in June 2008, Ovechkin
proclaimed that he wanted to declare a no-speeding-tickets day in DC. That was vintage Ovie -- life without limits -- but it also revealed the exuberance Crosby lacked. And never would Crosby be caught parading around town in a limo or at Dolce & Gabbana with a hot blonde on his arm, à la Ovechkin. Crosby was careful, corporate. Ovechkin was unpredictable, borderline dangerous. The key word was passion, and even though Crosby had it inside, Ovechkin oozed it. He was the anti-Sid, possibly the better player, and soon a cult hero. And no matter how often Crosby showed up in commercials, Ovechkin trumped him on YouTube, where his goals, and the celebrations that followed, had gone viral.

Of course, that underground attention caused a whiplash reaction against Ovechkin. All he was doing was scoring goals and having fun, but the purists labeled him selfish -- just like the flashy point guard or flamboyant wide receiver. "There's an element that sees Ovie as an NBA-ification of hockey," says Ewell. "A lot of people believe no one person should be held above everyone else."
Both Ovechkin and Crosby became victims of the NHL's culture of anonymity. Then the rivalry, which had been little more than a talking point among media and fans, burst into public view.

The two stars met in front of the Washington bench in a Caps blowout during the regular season last winter, and Ovechkin ripped off Crosby's helmet before taunting him by flapping his arms like a chicken. It was
revelatory: The players really do not like each other. And in case fans still weren't sure, both spoke out after the game. Crosby on Ovechkin's celebrations: "Some people like it, some people don't. Personally, I don't." Ovechkin: "He's a good player, but he talks too much." The rivalry heated up when their teams clashed in the second round of last season's playoffs. But the Pens' win and subsequent Cup did little to resolve the debate. In fact, the sight of Bettman handing the chalice to Crosby only annoyed detractors more, and the overblown reaction to Crosby's looking like he'd snubbed the handshake line -- which he had not -- only fueled the anti-Sid fire.

Meanwhile, Ovechkin spent his summer deejaying and wooing the ladies in Russia. Photos of him partying tickled fans and enraged foes. We all love to watch the traditional guy because he comforts us. But we're drawn to the rebel because, well, he scares us while he inspires us. "Purists have an attachment to Sid," says CBC analyst Greg Millen. "He represents what Canadians think they are: proud but humble. Ovechkin may be the villain in hockey circles, but the kids eat him up. They think he's sick." As great as he is and will be, we've seen Crosby before. He's the Next One, not the First One. But Ovechkin is an evolution, the kind of exciting, dynamic player you'd create in a video game.

Crosby has no culture war to wage, but Ovechkin will either change the hockey world or be changed by it. "There's a code," says fellow Cap Brian Pothier. "Because there's fighting, there's accountability. As soon as you express some personality, people squash it." Ovechkin can't help but keep expressing. "Some fans love me, some fans hate me," he says. He grins widely. "It's okay."

There's no question that Bettman still prefers to promote the team-first aspect of his league and sport. "Advertisers promote players," he says. "We have the consummate team sport." But evidence
suggests that, as with Magic and Bird in the 1980s, the individual rivalry is beginning to consume the team battle. "Sid's a proud individual," says teammate Pascal Dupuis. "He wants to be on top. And we want him to be on top." The Caps feel the same about their star. "Ovie sells the game how he plays it," says defenseman Brooks Laich. "He's not the poster boy Sid is."

Whatever the players or league officials may think or hope, the NHL is clearly blessed to have two compelling, dynamic stars competing at the same time in the same conference. One is without a doubt the face of the league today. The other may well turn out to be the prototype for tomorrow.

Eric Adelson is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine.