Photo by clyde on Flickr.
Photo by clyde on Flickr.

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Alex Ovechkin was not quite 13 the last time the Capitals played in the Stanley Cup Finals, but he’d already made a name for himself as a phenom playing youth hockey in Russia. In a 2010 profile of Ovechkin in GQ , Michael Idov rattles off stories that sound way more like myth than truth: Ovechkin grabbing his first hockey stick at 2; Ovechkin, at 10, hitting the post so hard with a shot that the puck split in half.

Now, leading the Caps back to the finals after a two-decade absence, Ovechkin is 32. That’s not ancient in hockey terms, but it’s far from his phenom days. Which makes this accomplishment something of a fascinating twist in his career. Ovechkin seemed destined to be a generational superstar, replicating his childhood feats of legend on NHL ice, and in many statistical categories he has. But not winning a championship—not even leading his team to the chance to play for one—has to grate deeply.

In that same GQ profile—eight years old now, remember—Irov writes, “For all his undisputed genius, he has yet to lead the Capitals to the Stanley Cup or Russia to Olympic gold. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that these are his twin goals in life, and so far he’s fallen short on both.” Eight years of falling short.

It’s very, very easy to pigeonhole people—athletes especially, but really everyone—into a preformed narrative. For genuine star athletes, there are two main possible storylines: there’s the Winner, and there’s the Statistical Wizard, who racks up counting stats but, for whatever reason, never quite wins the most significant games. By 32 you expect a player to have hardened into one of those roles, and it’s easy to see where Ovechkin would’ve fallen.

Players who come into their leagues with as much hype as Ovechkin did tend to seem old beyond their years, because there is no period of discovery, no point when you feel like you’re maybe seeing something special. They’re the focus from the minute they show up. (This is why it feels like LeBron James has been around for decades and Tiger Woods for centuries.)

Which can also make it exceptionally difficult to judge the passage of time. If a player has been ubiquitous for more than a decade, it’s no surprise that he eventually gets old. Watching Ovechkin over the years, though, it’s still strange to see him with actual gray in his hair, and more bizarre to realize that he’s reached the point of elder-statesmanship where his harshest critics start praising him.

That happened last night, after the Game 7 win, with noted Ovechkin-hater Mike Milbury of NBC Sports Network. Amid assorted praise for Ovechkin’s play and his leadership, Milbury noted, “I think he’s a different guy than what we saw over the last ten years or so.”

Reading that sentence in cold black-and-white text, it seems obvious to the point of idiocy. Who isn’t different than they were ten years ago? But that’s the thing with athletes: Once they get stuck in a narrative, it’s incredibly difficult for them to change that narrative—and almost as difficult for us as viewers to let ourselves see them outside of that narrative. There’s a reason the reaction to this Caps playoff run even from those who are happy about it tends to be framed in terms of disbelief.

Twenty years since the Caps have made it this far. Almost thirteen of brilliance from Ovechkin in D.C. That’s a lot of narrative build up. Now, somehow, Ovechkin and the Caps have—at the very least—the opportunity to write a different story.

Photo by clyde on Flickr.