Some dots have begun to connect in my head in the last month or so as it regards one particular hot button topic in the NHL. That topic being: Why is Alexander Ovechkin so comfortably mediocre this year? For some this question is irrelevant, and rightly so. A millionaire athlete’s performance struggles are hardly worth wasting any breath on. Debates like these are often reserved for dank and dusty bar rooms or better suited for skipping over the tedium of the work week with a colleague. I have pitched my theory about Ovechkin’s lack of productivity in both situations actually. It has been received well.
Let’s start from the beginning.
I went internet searching for some closure on the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv plane crash investigation. I was curious to hear what the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee determined was the exact cause of the accident, a curiosity peaked no doubt by my growing anxiousness over air travel. What I knew going into the search was that this crash was due to a number of factors: age of plane and pilot error the two above the rest. What mystified me though, was how this plane went down on a clear day, with no precipitation to speak-of, shortly after take-off. The final results were terrifying.
According to the transcript of the recovered black box (nicely translated for us by Wikipedia) there was a misunderstanding between the pilots. Apparently, once an airplane hits 190 mph it has to continue with the takeoff procedure or risk an accident. In the case of this takeoff, the pilot switched between takeoff programs as the plane reached optimal speeds resulting in a lag effect on the planes thrusting capabilities. There was confusion and both pilots hit the switches. In other words, at 230 mph, the captain hit the fucking breaks.
Now what blows me away is that the pilot had no intention of flying this plane. According to the black box transcript he had handed control of the plane over to his co-pilot prior to takeoff because he wasn’t feeling well. So imagine the surprise of the co-pilot when the captain all of a sudden started mucking around with the lift-off commands. The transcript captures the co-pilot’s astonishment:
Co-pilot: “What are you doing”
Captain: “Takeoff [thrust]!”
Flight Engineer: “Takeoff thrust on.”
The plane outran the runway, lifted high enough off the ground to hit the top of a tower mast, then veered into the banks of the Volga River. The plane split in two on impact and exploded, killing nearly the entire hockey team, staff, and crew instantly. Unbelievable.
An autopsy preformed on the pilot revealed that he had taken a banned sedative to combat his illness prior to takeoff. So, essentially, he was flying impaired. Wow.
There were only two survivors one player and one crew member. The player’s name was Alexander Galimov. As you all probably know he later died in the hospital on account of the burns that covered his entire body. What you may not know is that Galimov and Alexander Ovechkin had been teammates in the past. They were members of the 2005 silver medal winning Russia World Junior Championship team. I’m not sure if they were friends but they knew each other.
In fact, there is a number of other players on that flight who Ovechkin either played with or against throughout his hockey career. I’m certain he was left shaken not only by the shock of losing some of his friends and previous teammates but by the circumstances of the tragedy: an entire hockey team dies in an aviation accident. I’m not a pro athlete but that has to be up there in terms of legitimate fears.
Anyway, I didn’t think too much of the effect this accident must have had on Ovechkin. I just assumed that the ramifications were severe and the pain heart-wrenching for him, and he was going about his life day-to-day as he dealt with the grief. It wasn’t until the Oilers played the Colorado Avalanche two Saturdays ago that something occurred to me.
During the game’s telecast Daryl Reaugh was doing the colour commentary alongside Mark Lee. At one point in the action Reaugh took the opportunity to comment on Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov’s sub-par play so far this year. Noting that the newly acquired keeper (the Avs traded a first round pick to Washington to get him) hadn’t put up very solid numbers this year and has looked distracted in the nets. Reaugh’s observation was a keen one, albeit a bit obvious and lacking any real statistical evidence. However, he was merely segueing into a story he had been keeping from us. That Varlamov has been struggling emotionally with the aftermath of the Lokomotiv plane crash.
According to Reaugh, Varlamov has been distracted and disinterested throughout the season leading to some poor starts here and there. Varlamov’s parents, concerned for the health of their son, moved from Russia to Colorado to live with him. Reaugh’s tone throughout this story was one of admiration and pride for the parents, who were recognizing that their child was suffering; but his subtext was alluding to the fact that Varlamov might be suffering from some sort-of mental illness as a result of the tragedy. An illness fueled by the fact that if Varlamov hadn’t been traded to Colorado in the offseason, he was going to play for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv this year. Unbelievable.
But this story by Reaugh got me thinking. If this tragedy could have this kind-of impact on Varlamov’s mental health and play what other players could it be affecting? So, I checked the statistics of every Russian player in the NHL (it didn’t take long there are only 27 who have actually seen a game this season) to see if other players have had a drop in their numbers. And the findings were alarming.
Many of them are preforming under their career averages. Guys like Ilya Kovlachuk, Alexander Semin, Anton Volchenkov, Pavel Datsyuk, Nikita Filatov, Ilya Bryzgalov, and, of course, Ovechkin and Varlamov have been underperforming statistically. No doubt, there are exceptions. Nikolai Khabibulin is playing extremely well still, and Evegeni Malkin is contributing, but for the most part the numbers are down.
And it’s not just the numbers it’s the style of play too. In the case of Ovechkin it has been a real lack of jump and tenacity on the ice. On the pre-game show for Hockey Night in Canada this past Saturday, P.J. Stock isolated Ovechkin in the last game and called his play “Stand Still Hockey.” Because he just isn’t moving out there. It’s the look of a player who cares little about numbers right now. A player who might be distracted, or even depressed. A player who gives two shits about the game of hockey.
Obviously, I have little evidence to prove this point; but with all the talk over the summer about the NHL’s inability to assist players who may be fighting depression, I think it’s time to give Ovechkin a consultation. And any other players who may be struggling with the lasting impact of Lokomotiv.