ESPN's news magazine "E:60" turned its attention to Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin last night, and the segment was about 12 minutes of everything terrifying and tantalizing about the NHL one day rejoining its former cable television home. Take a look at "E:60" on AO:
It's frustrating to think back to the NHL's time on the network and how this sort of glowing, demographic-spanning profile was rare at best and nonexistent at worst. But that was before the NHL was blessed with ESPN-friendly stars that have crossover appeal, and before ESPN started dedicating major resources to long-form video journalism.
As for the piece, it's a compelling narrative by reporter Rachel Nichols, who covered the Caps for the Washington Post many moons ago: Ovechkin as the rock star, whose devil-may-care attitude was born of personal tragedy and manifests itself in on-ice celebrations and off-ice violations of traffic laws. And he loves that Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Bird to his Magic, doesn't appreciate his antics.
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Leahy made the point the other day that the "Sidney as villain" marketing argument has actually been answered by Ovechkin: He's added dashes of ego and agitation to his already contrarian persona; the results have been divisive among some puckheads and hockey elders, but ESPN isn't dedicating a segment to Ovechkin if it hasn't worked on some level. So perhaps he's inheriting the mantle as NHL anti-hero.
Oh, there were squirmy moments, for sure. Like using that glam-rock video the Capitals shot for their opening montage without any context, leading the viewer to imagine Ovechkin on stage at the 9:30 Club rocking out with the fans.
Has your sphincter unclenched from Nichols's staged-opening "editorial meeting" lines about "a kid" who is the "hockey heir to Dominique Wilkins"?
The comparison is made because Ovechkin is, like the former Atlanta Hawks star, a "Human Highlight Film." Never mind that Wilkins led the NBA in scoring once and never won an MVP award or NBA championship; gotta sell the foreign guy and hockey to the basketball fans. Hey, look, it's LeBron!
Has the echo from the rim-shot that followed "Alex Ovechkin makes Chad Johnson look like he's reading the paper" quieted yet?
One used an end zone pylon as a golf putter, did the Riverdance after a touchdown and created homemade signs to ask the NFL not to fine him. Ovechkin jumps in the glass and had the one regrettable "fire stick" celebration. Call us when he changes his name to Alex Cero Ocho.
Learning about one sport through comparisons to another; a classic World Wide Leader move. This is where the worlds of hockey and ESPN collide.
In hockey world, Ovechkin has been helped enormously by the contributions of Alexander Semin and Niklas Backstrom; has played through criticisms that he doesn't play defense and shoots too often; and competes against some guy named Evgeni Malkin, who doesn't seem to exist in ESPN world. (Wait until they catch his cooking show.)
In ESPN world, you boil down the story until you're left with a marketable narrative: Hockey's Magic Johnson, endorsed by LeBron James, who likes really fast cars that you can't afford; has women on both arms; can break laws and still get a key from the mayor; and is pissing off the establishment with every new highlight and achievement.
Here's the thing: If hockey fans want to see the NHL grow its fan base beyond its geographic strongholds and into the general sports fan consciousness, then it's time to accept the ESPN approach to marketing our stars.
This Ovechkin piece will get someone who doesn't watch hockey to watch a Washington Capitals game. That's undeniable, and it's a marketing approach that's long, long overdue in the U.S.
It can't all be that Maxim/ESPN vibe. The concern is whether that fluffy, accessible approach to the game can be balanced with smart, informed analysis and a compelling narrative for what happens on the ice.
Is there any chance ESPN could give the NHL both if the two ever reunited?