SAN JOSE – Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin raised some eyebrows last week when he said he and fellow superstar Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins revitalized professional hockey in North America.
Both Ovechkin and Crosby came into the NHL in 2005, beginning a rivalry that has endured for close to two decades with each player establishing themselves as generational talents. They faced each other in the playoffs multiple times, and one or both were often on national television, raising the profile of the league.
“We saved the NHL,” Ovechkin told The Athletic.
Ovechkin, in town with the Capitals, won’t get an argument from the San Jose Sharks.
At that time, the NHL was coming off a year-long lockout that had threatened to decimate interest in the sport, and the talents of Crosby and Ovechkin, along with rule changes designed to create more scoring opportunities, breathed new life into a league that well past the era of Wayne Gretzky.
“One hundred percent,” Sharks coach David Quinn said when asked if he agreed with Ovechkin.
“At that point in time, the league certainly needed that type of impact from young players, and obviously the different personalities. Ovechkin’s personality, I thought, was also one of the things that helped our league, on top of being a great player, his personality, and the way he played. I think it helps us from a marketing standpoint to have those types of personalities.
“Sid’s personality is different, but also is lovable, if that makes any sense. I just think those two guys have done so much for this league and for their franchises.”
Crosby had 102 points in his rookie season in 2005-2006 but finished in Calder Trophy voting that year to Ovechkin, who had 52 goals and 106 points in his first season with the Capitals.
That was just the beginning. Crosby and Ovechkin entered Monday with 1,526 and 1,497 points, respectively, good enough for 15th and 16th in league history in scoring. They’ve combined to win four Stanley Cups and the Hart Memorial Trophy, as the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team, five times.
“Anytime you get generational players — even more than generational players, some of the best to ever do it – coming in at the same time, that brings a big boost to the whole league worldwide,” Sharks forward Mike Hoffman said. “You get eyes on you from all over the place. So, obviously, those guys have been a huge part of the NHL. We’re lucky to have players like that.”
Since 2005, the NHL has expanded from 30 to 32 teams. League-wide revenues, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in October, are expected to reach $6.2 billion this season, compared to $2.1 billion in 2003-2004, the last full season before Crosby and Ovechkin entered the NHL.
New television contracts with Disney and Turner Sports provide the NHL with $625 million per season, up from the $200 million the league garnered annually from its previous contract with NBC.
“Generational players,” Sharks defenseman Kyle Burroughs said of Crosby and Ovechkin. “You look at what they did, the energy and the excitement that they brought to the game, the crazy highlight reel goals, even the rivalry between the two of them was fun to watch. Any chance you had to watch a Pens and Caps game, you weren’t going to miss it.
“For the league, they took steps in growing the game. There are probably people from different regions and different countries that maybe took an interest in the game because of those two players. I don’t know how many people can say that unless their names are Connor McDavid, Wayne Gretzky, and other pillars of the game. Those guys are fully entrenched in the history of the game, for sure.”
Burroughs said when he was younger, he always wanted to try and block one of Ovechkin’s shots. It happened on Jan. 16, 2021, Burroughs’ first full NHL season, when the Vancouver Canucks played in Washington.
“Then I got humbled by being steamrolled by him the next shift,” Burroughs said of Ovechkin. “So it was mixed emotions but it’s just one of those things that’s it’s a cool moment that for me, I’ll look back on.”