SUNRISE, Fla. — First, Sergei Ovechkin’s presence caught the crowd off guard. Then, the little guy managed to surprise his old man, too.
Everybody in FLA Live Arena knew Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were going to team up in some capacity in the breakaway challenge at the NHL All-Star Skills. What we didn’t know was that, after P.K. Subban — one of the night’s best-dressed hosts — got Sid and Ovi to sign an all-star jersey for him, a third party was going to get involved.
Before bearing down on Florida Panthers legend Roberto Luongo — who dusted off the pads for this celebratory night — Ovechkin and Crosby were joined by the former’s young son. Skating right between his dad and his dad’s longtime rival, Sergei — with Ovi Jr. stitched on the back of his Washington Capitals reverse-retro — called for the puck every second that it was on anyone else’s stick. And when dad finally put it on a tee for him right in front of Luongo, he went forehand-backhand into the net.
“Great move,” Ovechkin said at the end of the night. “I thought he was just going to take a slapshot.”
A skills competition can be clunky, even downright awkward sometimes. At their best, though, they can provide moments that stick. And according to Ovechkin, Sergei couldn’t wait for his. “Obviously Sergei was very happy, always smiling, always asking when the hockey is going to be,” Ovechkin said. “I said, ‘Listen, wait, wait, wait.’ At the end, he was a little upset everything was over.”
As much as Sergei stole the show, this was always about fans’ and players’ ability to see Sid and Ovi — both in their 18th NHL seasons — do something together on the ice that was an acknowledgement, however small, of the influence they’ve had on a generation of kids who grew up watching them do battle.
“Those were a couple of the first guys I grabbed a picture with for my son, I threw him in there,” said New York Islander Brock Nelson.
No doubt, kids were getting passed around like water bottles on the bench, as one player would hand his son or daughter off to a fellow NHL star and pull out the phone. But with all the lighthearted, even goofy happenings, you can still be in awe of pure skill. Maybe Connor McDavid didn’t win the accuracy shooting because Nazem Kadri hit all four targets in less time in their semifinal showdown, but McDavid went a cool eight-for-eight on his two attempts at exploding the red and white circles affixed to the net’s four corners.
“I don’t think anyone is surprised,” said Nelson, who actually beat Kadri in the final of the accuracy shooting competition. “He’s the best in the world and he’s probably the guy it’s coolest to be around and see up close an personal. To see him [go] eight-for-eight doesn’t surprise me.”
To be sure, it’s not just the kids who are excited to be around all this talent. David Pastrnak, who provided a signature moment himself with a Happy Gilmore impersonation during the breakaway challenge (why don’t the Bruins just wear those Ray Bourque era sweaters all the time?), had a huge grin talking about how he’d gotten every guy in the dressing room to sign the stick that was leaning on the bench beside him. Johnny Gaudreau said it was awesome being sandwiched beside Ovechkin and Crosby in the dressing room that housed the Eastern Conference players. And basically, to a man, they all talked about just loving being around the two guys who’ve defined nearly two decades of NHL play.
“It means a lot,” said Crosby when asked how it feels to know the reverence other players have for him and Ovechkin.
As for whether these moments carry more weight for Crosby now that he’s a 35-year-old vet rather than a fresh-faced kid, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain noted it’s never been lost on him how unique these opportunities are.
“I like to think every time I went that I appreciated it and tried to make the most of it,” Crosby said. “But yeah, you understand as you get older that you don’t know how many more you’re be a part of. I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to see familiar faces and to meet new guys and just see what guys are capable of up close, see all the skill that’s here in the league.”
As for the idea that, after their long history of battling in playoff series and on the international stage, it would be at all odd for Crosby and Ovechkin to hook up in this event, the former doused that with the same kind of cold water he experienced being dunked by Mikko Rantanen in the South Florida original splash shot competition.
“Coming [into the league] and the expectations before we played [an NHL] game against each other, it was already a rivalry, it was kind of set up that way,” he said. “I think over time you understand, yeah, it gets heated, it’s intense on the ice, you both want to have success. But you appreciate playing against each other for as long as it has been.”
Wearing his white all-star hoodie, Crosby acknowledged it was a little tough leaving the pool in the afternoon to come to the rink. “I was trying to get the bus pushed back a little bit,” he said with a laugh.
But, of course, duty called and both Crosby and Ovechkin likely knew on some level how much them even making this small gesture would be a cool moment for those tuning in. And also the goal-scorer himself.
“That’s a special moment,” Ovechkin said. “The fans love it. It’s great for the game, for both of us and obviously Sergei as well.”