By Michael James
The Tribe Sports
It’s often and long been said that nothing comes from violence. A great adage, yes, but nonetheless untrue. For sometimes, violence is the only language universally well enough understood to teach a lesson.
That lesson is one of respect.
Respect for law. Respect for tradition. Respect for one’s elders.
And sometimes, no matter how you personally feel about the meting out of violence, it is unequivocally satisfying – as was the case of Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin knocking the bejeezus out of 19-year-old fellow Russian, Andrei Svechnikov, of the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 3 of the National Hockey League playoffs.
Now, all you pacifists out there might disagree, but the fact is this young man had it coming. Ovechkin, you see, has been in the league for 14 years, is considered one of the greatest scorers in league history and is pretty much universally respected by his teammates and his opponents.
As a rookie in 2004, when Svechnikov was not yet even 5 years old, Ovechkin won the Calder Memorial Cup as rookie of the year, with 52 goals and 54 assists to lead all rookies with 106 points and finished third in the league in scoring.
Through the years, Ovi, nicknamed The Great Eight, has won the Rocket Richard Trophy eight times, an honor bestowed upon the league’s top scorer, a feat he has accomplished more than any player in NHL history.
I point out his credentials to stress the fact that Ovechkin, son of a two-time basketball Olympic gold medal-winning mother and a soccer-playing father, has earned his stripes.
Svechnikov, by contrast, is a neophyte. Although something of a hockey prodigy, as was Ovechkin, Schevnikov just got here, signing a three-year rookie deal with the Hurricanes on July 1, 2018.
With the Caps up 2-0 in the series and nursing a 1-0 lead in the game, Svechnikov apparently decided to try the older man. Standing an identical 6-foot-3 like Ovechkin, Svechnikov slashed at the Capitals right winger with his stick several times, bumped him, then jawed, before Ovechkin finally took the bait and dropped his gloves.
Several devastating right hands later, Svechnikov, a native of Barnaul, Russia – with a weight disadvantage of 187 pounds to Ovechkin’s 236 pounds – dropped to the ice like a sack of potatoes, his head hitting the ice with a sickening thud. Out cold.
Ovechkin, born in Moskow, skated away almost before Svechnikov totally lost consciousness, his teammates banging their sticks on the boards in approval.
Carolina went on to win the game, 5-0, pulling within 2-1 in the series, but the point had been made: respect those who have earned respect.
Svechnikov, when he finally was roused, went into concussion protocol and was lost for the game.
Now, I know many people will say that fighting is a blight on the game of hockey and should be outlawed. That violence is never the answer and doesn’t set the best of example for children – and I agree – to a point.
The fact is, sometimes violence is the only language the young understand, and there is an order to things that should be adhered to. Ovechkin, who hadn’t been in a fight since the 2010 season and has only been in four fights during games in his 14-year, is a surefire Hall of Famer and should not have had to defend himself or his honor against a fellow countryman trying to prove his worth.
Svechnikov tried, anyway, and he learned his lesson. Which, is probably the only way he was ever going to learn.
When the scrum was over, media reports quickly added his age to the storyline, pointing out the fact that he was only 19 years – as though he was somehow taken advantage of by a fully grown man. However, that is simply misrepresenting what actually happened.
Svechnikov played with fire and got burned.
In sports, as in life, we are often in a hurry to turn the world over to the young. We revere the precocious three-year-old who can play like Beethoven, while we don’t adequately appreciate Beethoven himself. The little girl who looks like a woman? We’ll set her up for life financially and put her in adult situations well before she’s hit puberty.
For some reason, we give much more credit to those who can do what actual adults do, despite the fact that one crucial deficit is at hand when it comes to youth: mimicking what adults can do doesn’t mean the young have the experience to know what those accomplishments mean.
Worse, sometimes the young don’t properly accord respect to those who came before.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this lesson – again, it’s about respect – taught in the sports world.
Remember 26-year-old Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox charging the mound against 46-year-old Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers after getting hit with a pitch on August 4, 1993?
Hall of Famer Ryan grabbed the young man in a headlock like a cowboy wrestling a steer and pounded him with uppercuts. It was a happening Ventura never lived down. Fact is, Ventura should have taken the hit and simply walked to first base. He took it another way – electing to attack a revered player 20 years his senior – and learned his lesson.
It certainly doesn’t always take violence to teach lessons to the young. I would never advocate that. Most times, experience simply wins out. Great examples are Michigan’s Fab Five back in the 1990s, a gregarious, loose and fun-loving group of freshmen who took the sports world by storm. Many thought they’d rack up a couple of national championships before splintering off to join the NBA.
The upstart and uber-talented Wolverines reached the 1992 and 1993 NCAA championship games, only to lose to more experienced Duke and North Carolina, respectively. As painful as those losses were for Michigan fans, it was good for the game of college basketball that a team of freshmen and sophomores weren’t able to crash the college game for just a couple of years and then take their act to the NBA.
Such a precedent was averted. Even today, where one-and-done’s are common in college basketball, overall, experience wins out over sheer youth and talent – as it should be.
Another great example was all the hoopla surrounding the youth-dominated Orlando Magic, who were favored against the experienced Houston Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals. Many expected the Magic, led by then-23-year-old stars Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal, would coast to the title, especially in light of their winning the season series, 2-0.
Once the Finals arrived, however, experience – as well as Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, Kenny Smith and Sam Cassell – proved too much for the young guns and the Rockets won in a sweep. O’Neal would finally win his first title with the Los Angeles Lakers five years later in 2000. By then, the eight year veteran was 28 years old and experienced enough to know what it takes to become a champion.
None of this is to say that nothing can be learned from the young. It’s to say that the young often aren’t able to teach those who’ve been around the block, thus must – and should – simply wait their turn.
Experience, and respect for that experience counts for something. And sometimes, as Andrei Svechnikov discovered on the wrong end of Alex Ovechkin’s right fist, this lesson must be learned the hard way.
Michael James has spent more than 20 years in sports journalism as a general assignment reporter with the Detroit News, an NBA beat writer for the New York Daily News and as head writer for ESPN’s Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith.