Sunday, July 17, 2011

Book Review: The Ovechkin Project by Damien Cox and Gare Joyce

The Ovechkin ProjectThe story of Alexander Ovechkin is still far from being complete. But in his six years as a left winger with the Washington Capitals, he has seen highs and lows, and in his 25 years of life, he has experienced tragedy and victory.

The Ovechkin Project: A Behind-the Scenes Look at Hockey's Most Dangerous Player
by Damien Cox and Gare Joyce, examines Ovechkin's professional and private life from his youth growing up in Russia to the 2009/10 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The book opens at the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver with Ovechkin and his Russian teammates lined up against Canada in the quarterfinal game. A nice preview, it introduces the insiders whose comments and insights on Ovechkin are presented throughout the book.

Sadly, as the authors note in the acknowledgments section, they were never able to secure access to Ovechkin or his family. A shortcoming that no doubt means a less thorough book but not one that renders the result unworthy of reading for hockey fans.

Outrage at the Title of the Book?


Some readers and critics seem to have been affronted by the fact that the book was sub-titled A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Hockey's Most Dangerous Player, when no direct input was provided by Ovechkin himself.

In fact, that's what most of the handful of reviews for the book at Amazon seem to focus on. It almost seems like a concerted effort to glom onto to this minor point and take away from what is an otherwise entertaining and informative book. The criticism is not really relevant, especially because all PR about the book plainly states that it is an unauthorized look at Ovechkin's life.

And the book does contain many comments from Capitals' insiders: owner Ted Leonsis, GM Mike McPhee, head coach Bruce Boudreau and numerous teammates, past and present, of Ovechkin's.

The Early Years


Readers get a fairly lean retelling of Ovechkin's childhood in Russia and the single-minded focus of his mother Tatiana to turn her son into a world-class athlete. Perhaps he absorbed his mother's passion to see him make it big or maybe he was just blessed with a natural drive and determination. But whatever the cause, together with his relatively prosperous upbringing in post-communist Russia and the sports-related opportunities it afforded him, Ovechkin drove himself to be better than anyone else on the ice.

But not everything goes smoothly. When Ovechkin was 12, his older brother died after being involved in a car accident, one of a handful of deaths of people close to him that would have a lasting effect on him.

Recent History


The past few years of Ovechkin's life offer up some great drama and an arc to his character development that couldn't have been more appropriate for an engaging analysis if it had been created by a fiction writer.

The negotiations for Ovechkin's current mammoth contract of 13 years and 124 million dollars is one example of the real-life drama and provides for great reading. It also further highlights how much his family is important to Ovechkin; he had no agents involved in the discussions for his new deal and instead relied on the input of his mother and father and others in his inner circle.

Following the contract, Ovechkin seems to have changed noticeably. His previous goofy, happy-go-lucky self is replaced with someone who is more arrogant and wary of others. With all the people who are out for a piece of someone in that situation, his reaction is not surprising in many ways.

This is where feedback from Ovechkin could have made this a much better book. Of course, this is no fault of the authors. They could have easily reacted with a negative view of their subject but for the most part avoid that path (except where Ovechkin's behaviour may have warranted criticism).

This relative lack of editorializing on certain topics is good: for example, Ovechkin responds to a question from a reporter that alerts him to the length of a suspension he had been handed from the NHL and his first thought is that he will lose out on over 200, 000 dollars because of the missed games. What does it say about Ovechkin? That is pretty much left to the reader to decide.

Major Disappointments


Major disappointments for his teams, both with the Capitals during the 2009/10 playoffs when they bow out in the first round to a determined Montreal Canadiens team with a hot goalie, and the abysmal performance of the Russian squad at the 2010 winter Olympics, add more intrigue and raise further questions about Ovechkin.

The story that emerges of Ovechkin is of someone who is immensely talented but who has not yet found a way to translate that talent into championships for his team. Someone who is in a fierce rivalry with Sidney Crosby, and someone who, while hailed as a leader by his teammates, occasionally veers towards selfishness both on and off the ice.

Crosby/Ovechkin Rivalry


As far as the ongoing competition with Crosby goes, no doubt there is something there. But writers often try to create a strong narrative around which to structure an entire book, and that is the case here with the Crosby/Ovechkin rivalry. It is played up just a bit too much. For example:

“With no apologies to Bird and Johnson, theirs [Ovechkin and Crosby's] could be a rivalry without precedent in the modern history of sport.”

Not an apology, but a glaring bit of prolepsis.

The rivalry theme inevitably concludes, in not so many words, that Crosby has got Ovechkin beat on most levels: well-rounded multi-dimensional play, a Stanley Cup ring and Olympic gold medal, and the willingness to face the heat in an open and honourable way when his team loses.

Other “Sub-Plots”


As with many books that are ostensibly about a single individual, The Ovechkin Project can't help but include numerous other interesting characters and "subplots." One of the most interesting bits in the book is a section about Bruce Boudreau’s incredible turn of fortunes in the past few seasons as he was named as Capitals' head coach during the 2007/08 campaign and helped the team turn around their season. In the early going of the book, a good discussion on the history of Russian players in the NHL also makes for great reading.

Of course, all the threads are somewhat linked to Ovechkin. The NHL’s move over the last few years to start showcasing some of its biggest stars, with limited results, receives attention in the book. And the endorsement agency that Ovechkin signed with, IMG, and how they have tried to mold his public image in an attempt to help him and them cash in, is also interesting.

The requisite hockey book play-by-play recounting of games and series are here and games from the Vancouver winter Olympics of 2010 and the 2009/10 Stanley Cup playoffs are described in absorbing style.

Worth Reading?


The writing is generally tight and entertaining in The Ovechkin Project. Cox and Joyce are good writers and offer up straightforward, unclich├ęd prose with some good turns of phrases. This excerpt describes the build-up to game two of the first round series between Washington and Montreal in the 2009/10 Stanley Cup playoffs:
It was as thought the NHL playoff schedule was specifically designed to keep the personal game of H-O-R-S-E between Ovechkin and Crosby going. Going into Game 2, Ovechkin had seen all the highlights from the second game of the Pittsburgh-Ottawa series from the night before when Crosby had constructed a brilliant setup for the winning goal. On that play, Crosby eluded Jason Spezza behind the net with a series of reverses, like he was running a three-man weave by himself, before feeding Kris Letang for the clinching goal. Crosby also made the key defensive play for the Penguins earlier in the game, batting a loose puck away from the Penguin goal line. So the standard was again set, or lifted, for Ovechin as he stepped out on the ice for the second game against the Habs.
But there were some annoyances. Throughout the book, Cox and Joyce insert italicized sentences following some bit of action that has been described involving a player or coach. As if the italicized words represent what the person was likely thinking at that moment. For example, from this passage that describes Ovechkin’s involvement in a scrum after a goal:

“A melee ensued after Staal’s goal when Orpik got his stick up into the face of Pothier and Ovechkin tackled Letang, sitting on top of him and squeezing the life out of him with a bear hug. They stand up for me, I have to stand up for them.”

Or:

Ovechkin skated off the ice after another disappointing loss. The 100 thousand every game soothes the hurt just a bit.

OK, I made up the last one, but you get the point.

This often works to good effect. It makes a story being told in the past tense seem more immediate and it also provides some indication of what that player in question may have been thinking at that moment. But it becomes tiresome through the course of the book. And sometimes the supposed thought is so inane or obvious as to detract from a good section. Other times it just seems like an opportunity to take a dig at someone.

Another criticism: like many hockey books, the copy-editing here falls on the somewhat sloppy side.

Aside from those minor points, there is enough new information and insight from those associated with Ovechkin to make for an enjoyable read. Ovechkin is likely waiting for what he assumes will be a championship or two in the coming years before he collaborates with someone to present his life story—a book over which he and those closest to him will no doubt insist on complete control. Until that time (and perhaps even after), this is the best critical look at the life of one of the current greats in the NHL.

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