On Monday, the NHL announced the three finalists for the Mark Messier Leadership Award: Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo, Los Angeles forward Dustin Brown and Washington forward Alexander Ovechkin. Luongo and Brown are both deserving nominees; Ovechkin makes a mockery of the core values of the Messier Leadership Award.
Started in 2006-07, the Messier Leadership Award is presented "to the player who exemplifies great leadership qualities to his team, on and off the ice during the regular season." Past winners have been Chris Chelios, Mats Sundin and Jarome Iginla.
Based on this definition, a strong case can be made for both Brown and Luongo. However, simply reading that mission statement, and considering the past winners as potential company, should eliminate Ovechkin.
In 2006, Ovechkin received five boarding majors and a game misconduct for hammering then-Philadelphia forward Daniel Briere. At the World Championships in 2007, Ovechkin was suspended for a game for a hit to the head while representing Russia, not the Washington Capitals. In Game 4 of last spring's semifinal series against Pittsburgh, Ovechkin was hit with only a minor penalty for tripping after a knee-on-knee collision with Sergei Gonchar.
On Oct. 22, Ovechkin was fined the maximum amount allowed by the collective bargaining agreement, $2,500, for a "slew foot" on Atlanta's Rich Peverley.On Dec. 1 of this season, Ovechkin was suspended for two games after a knee-to-knee collision with Carolina's Tim Gleason (video at bottom). The Gleason hit came just days after Ovechkin received a five-minute major for boarding Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta, whose face was bloody after hitting the wall.
How is someone who is considered a repeat offender under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and who has been suspended twice for unsportsmanlike hits on other players during this season, an example of "great leadership qualities to his team"?
Is someone who has been called "reckless" by his own coach deserving of an honor named after a professional like Messier? Consider the following video:
How is this an example of "on and off the ice" qualities that should be honored? This is not a condemnation of Ovechkin's over-the-top enthusiasm; his infectious energy is indeed something to appreciate, as ESPN's Barry Melrose said after Ovechkin knocked Brian Campbell out for the rest of the 2009-10 season. It is, however, an open and bold questioning of who, and how, the NHL selects the nominees for their awards.
According to the league's website, "suggestions for nominees are solicited from fans, clubs and NHL personnel, but the selection of the three finalists and the ultimate winner is picked by Messier." Messier might be considered one of the great leaders in NHL history, and he certainly never avoided physical contact.
But even Messier has to understand that there's a difference between a superstar being a polarizing figure, like Sidney Crosby, and a player being suspended multiple times in the same season for hits that were considered dirty by the league! Leadership implies, and the Messier Award's mission statement clearly defines it as something that should be replicated by other players.
In the current NHL environment where the league is taking dramatic steps to avoid unnecessary, injury-causing hits, wouldn't honoring Ovechkin after this season be hypocritical?
If Ovechkin wins the Messier Leadership Award, they should rename the trophy to more appropriately consider everything that Ovechkin brings to the game. Perhaps the Great When Not Suspended Award would be more fitting?