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Archive for Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hockey’s great young hopes

Ovechkin, Crosby bring star power to struggling NHL

January 24, 2007

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— Sitting side by side at a table, facing question after question about being the faces of the new NHL, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin flashed their grace and charm.

Asked about trying to bring the game to a wider audience, Ovechkin smiled, turned to Crosby and said, "Can you answer?" And the 19-year-old delivered smoothly, giving a thoughtful response that included the line, "We're going to do our best to make that possible."

Then came the subject of the league's MVP thus far. Ovechkin leaned right into the microphone and said, "Crosby!" Crosby laughed, started giving a politically correct answer about there being "too many guys right now," then broke into a smile and said, "I mean, the best answer would be Ovechkin right now, right?"

Pretty good, eh?

Well, they should be even more dazzling on the ice tonight.

"Those guys," said 10-time All-Star Teemu Selanne, "could do a lot of damage."

The Gretzky and Lemieux of their generation (at least that's what the NHL is banking on) Crosby and Ovechkin will be teammates for the first time when they lead the East's best against the West's best in the league's first midseason gathering since 2004 - or since the lockout that left hockey even less of a factor for sports fans in the United States.

While the league spouts attendance figures that show popularity is zooming, the reality is the entire NHL is counting on this exciting young duo to get TV ratings up and to generate more buzz.

That's why they were the only two players selected to meet the media Monday in a group setting.

And it explains how Ovechkin, a 21-year-old Moscow native, got stuck trying to compare himself and Crosby to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

The Washington CAPITALS' Alex Ovechkin, RIGHT, and the PITTSBURGH PENGUINS' SIDNEY CROSBY speak during media availability as part of the NHL All-Star Game festivities. The two young stars will play in tonight's All-Star Game in Dallas.

The Washington CAPITALS' Alex Ovechkin, RIGHT, and the PITTSBURGH PENGUINS' SIDNEY CROSBY speak during media availability as part of the NHL All-Star Game festivities. The two young stars will play in tonight's All-Star Game in Dallas.

"I feel comfortable," Ovechkin said. "And I think Sidney feels comfortable, too. We concentrate on the game and don't think about our faces, the NHL or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. We concentrate on our game and our team."

Crosby plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins and leads the league with 72 points, five more than anyone else. That's a whopping amount considering the rest of the top-20 scorers are separated by one or two points.

In his bid to become the youngest MVP since Gretzky, Crosby already has become the youngest top-vote-getter for the All-Star game.

And he lives with Lemieux, who as the owner of the Penguins also is his boss.

"It's been very exciting for my family. My four kids really love him," Lemieux said. "They play hockey with him all the time in the basement. They have a great time. He's a great kid, a great person, a great ambassador for our league. I feel very fortunate to have a chance to watch him play."

Ovechkin, of the Washington Capitals, has 65 points and 29 goals, one off the league lead. He also beat out Crosby last season for rookie of the year honors.

Yet as great as they are separately, it's hard to talk about one without mentioning the other.

"It's fun to watch the highlights every night because you know there will be a lot from both of them," Ottawa's Dany Heatley said. Happily their teammate this week, Heatley added, "It gives us a good chance."

During a light practice Monday night, Crosby (No. 87) and Ovechkin (No. 8) shared a few passes without showing off too much. On Tuesday afternoon, they worked with other All-Stars to build a Habitat for Humanity house, then were to log more ice time together during the skills contest; both were taking part in shootout events.

"We've seen each other casually at events like this, but we haven't spent a lot of time together," Crosby said. "We're on the same team, we're sitting next to each other in the (dressing) room, so I'm sure I'll talk to him a bit."

The better they are, the better for the NHL's long-term health.

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