SOCHI, Russia – They arrived together. Of course they did.
Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby stepped into Terminal D at Sochi-Adler International Airport moments apart on Monday morning after flying over with the first batch of NHL players to reach the Olympics. It was Atlas Air flight 8644 that brought them here – the quaint Russian resort town where hockey’s two generational talents will write the next chapter in their longstanding rivalry.
Crosby was able to slip out of the terminal virtually unnoticed on a brilliant sunny day. Wearing a black ballcap pulled down low, the Canadian captain boarded a bus headed for the athletes village without any fanfare from the dozens of reporters being held behind a barricade about 50 feet away.
Ovechkin, by contrast, was greeted personally by Vladislav Tretiak – the head of Russia’s hockey federation and a three-time Olympic gold medallist. Those two discussed the fact that it was a good omen that Ovechkin ran the first leg of the torch relay back on Sept. 29 and Tretiak finished it off by lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony on Friday night.
That moment, and the arrival of the hockey players, signals the fact that these Games have truly begun.
“It was a good flight, good atmosphere, they feel good – everybody,” said Tretiak.
Ovechkin and Crosby have had their roles reversed from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Four years ago, the hopes of an entire country were dangling from No. 87’s red and white sweater and he delivered in the biggest way possible with the golden goal.
“You’re happy he was born in Canada,” teammate Joe Thornton said of Crosby that day. “Thank God.”
There was a sense of destiny to that occasion – just as there seems to be for Ovechkin now. Outside of President Vladimir Putin, he is perhaps the most recognizable Russian on the planet today and you can’t go anywhere around the Olympic Park without seeing Ovechkin’s gap-toothed grin beaming from the omnipresent Coke ads.
There is, of course, a price to be paid for that level of celebrity. He has to score and he has to be a leader for the Russian team at this tournament. All eyes will be cast in the direction of No. 8, who raved to Tretiak about how “unbelievable” the atmosphere is in Sochi after his arrival.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that Crosby and Ovechkin remain the top two players in hockey, with Crosby currently 11 points up in the NHL scoring race and Ovechkin a full nine goals ahead of the rest of the pack. These men are on top of their games and in their primes. Now that they’re about to compete on the biggest stage in sports, what more can you ask for than that?
“[The] most important thing is [it’s] us against the whole world,” Ovechkin said recently. “I don’t think somebody is going to be there ... to be just in the Olympic Games. Our mission is try to win the gold medal and play our best hockey.”
This will be Crosby’s maiden voyage as Captain Canada. He’s long since shed the “Sid the Kid” moniker and confirmed his status as one of the best players ever to come from this proud hockey nation. However, there is still more history for him to author – a fact that is a little difficult to fathom given everything that he’s accomplished by age 26.
“He’s very mature,” Scott Niedermayer, Canada’s captain in Vancouver, said before the Games. “He was probably ready [to be captain] when he was 16. He was probably ready in 2010, and the thinking was he’s going to have enough pressure on him just from who he is and things like that that he doesn’t need one more thing to worry about, give it to some old guy that's just trying to figure things out out there.”
Now Crosby and Ovechkin are all grown up. They have no doubt acquired enough perspective on life to realize that these opportunities don’t come along very often. Even if the NHLers were to participate in Pyeonchang, South Korea four years from now, there is certainly no guarantee that Crosby and Ovechkin will be on top of the sport at that time. Not like they are right now.
For Ovechkin, this will also be the only time he’ll ever get to experience an Olympics on home soil. Crosby knows all about that. He overcame some bumps along the way in Vancouver and secured his place in Canadian hockey lore with a goal that is carved into the soul of his country.
Fairly or not, the Russian people expect the same from Ovechkin – although everyone around the team is trying desperately to downplay that fact.
“He’s good player so to him it is not big pressure,” said Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. “He’s used to it.”
They both are.
Crosby and Ovechkin entered the NHL together in 2005 and have been at the centre of the sport ever since. They have become the game-changing players everyone expected them to be. They have demonstrated time after time that they are a cut above the rest.
And when they walked off the same plane in Sochi on Monday morning, it felt like the right place and right time for them to prove it once again.