By Kevin B.Blackistone,
One more title Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin cemented last week: Greatest professional team player in Washington history.
I reached the surety of making that declaration in a moment of clarity, and not in the rapturous vapors of euphoria wafting through the D.C. area as the wake of Ovechkin finally leading the Capitals to the Stanley Cup.
It wasn’t easy. Just read Darrell Green’s biography in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The speedy cornerback, who played all 20 of his NFL seasons with RFK Stadium (where I was reared in section 312) and FedEx Field as his home, was a seven-time Pro Bowler. He helped lead his team to four NFC championship games, three Super Bowls and two NFL titles, often in spectacular fashion. His punt return in the second half of a 1987 divisional playoff game to lead a comeback in Chicago, on which he ran most of it clutching his midsection after tearing a rib cartilage leaping a would-be tackler, was instantly iconic.
Yet, Green wasn’t the greatest of his generation at his position. Ovechkin is.
Ovechkin last season made his 11th All-Star team. He led the NHL in goals scored for the seventh time in his 14 seasons, which surpassed everyone in league history except Bobby Hull who, too, led the league in goals seven times, the last time almost half a century ago.
Last season, Ovechkin became the fourth-fastest NHL player to 600 goals. He was preceded by Wayne Gretzky — the greatest goal scorer in history — and top-10 career scorers Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull.
And it was easier to score goals when Gretzky electrified the league and Lemieux and Brett Hull tried to catch up. Goals per game hovered around four in the ’80s. In Ovechkin’s era they’ve dropped well below three. Defense tightened up. Goalies got bigger physically and were allowed bulkier padding. Nonetheless, Ovechkin has excelled.
[Capitals’ Stanley Cup parade: Washington is celebrating already]
The statistical site fivethirtyeight.com noted last April: “From 1987 to 2018, Ovechkin has earned more point shares than any other player through their age-32 season.” In other words, for the past 30 years, no one has created more goals. That includes his nemesis, and ours, Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh.
Ovechkin didn’t become our first team athlete to be so generationally dominant. When I first uttered my thought of Ovechkin via tweet last Saturday, a number of people countered with the Senators’ World Series-winning pitcher Walter Johnson and NFL Championship quarterback Sammy Baugh.
Johnson was among the first five inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. No one every threw more shutouts. Only Cy Young won more games. Johnson’s career strikeouts record stood for more than half a century. He even gave Washington its only World Series victory in 1924.
But Johnson played all 21 of his years, all in Washington, during the 60-year stretch when baseball refused to let black men participate. He didn’t play against the best and, sadly, neither did those who starred in the Negro Leagues such as Josh Gibson, the legendary slugger for the Homestead Grays who played half of their games in the ’40s in D.C.’s old Griffith Stadium.
Baugh played all sides of football for our NFL franchise when its home was Griffith Stadium. He was a quarterback who burst on the league as a rookie in 1937 when he set a record in the NFL Championship game with 335 yards, which wasn’t broken until Russell Wilson did so in 2012. In between, Baugh registered exploits such as throwing four touchdowns and intercepting four passes in a win over Detroit in 1943. That season, he led the league in passing, interceptions and punting. He alone sparked this region’s fanaticism for football, not unlike Ovechkin has done for hockey.
But the first half of Baugh’s career was like all of Johnson’s. It came during the period in which the NFL decided to prevent black men from playing, an occurrence that came only after George Preston Marshall’s bought into the league with his purchase in 1932 of the league’s Boston franchise, renaming it in 1933 to its controversial nickname, moving it here in 1937, and keeping it the last all-white team until the federal government forced him to integrate it in 1962.
[Alex Ovechkin — captain, husband, expectant father — reaches hockey’s summit]
That Ovechkin led the Caps to the Stanley Cup 40 years to the day that the Washington Bullets won their only NBA title reminded of one other local team athlete worthy of consideration: center Wes Unseld. Like Ovechkin, Unseld was a rookie of the year, but in Baltimore, and a league MVP, but in Baltimore. He did, however, led the Bullets in D.C. to two other NBA Finals they didn’t win.
When I was growing up, I thought Sonny Jurgensen was the be-all and end-all around here. I was just coming to consciousness as a sports fan when Jurgensen was setting all manner of passing records in the league despite playing with a losing team.
But Sonny never did what Ovie has done. No one has. And Ovie, fortunately for us, isn’t through.
My friends Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser each have tales about proclaiming in the presence of the legendary sports columnist Shirley Povich the greatness of some Johnny-Come-Lately baseball player, only to be gobsmacked by Povich suggesting them incorrect while recalling a conversation he had with Walter Johnson, or Babe Ruth.
Povich lived to be 92 and was writing to the end. Should I last so long in this business, and some up-and-coming sportswriter proclaim the greatness of some whippersnapper athlete on a local team, I will gobsmack her or him with the retort, “Well, I watched Alexander Ovechkin . . .”
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.