He shoots, he scores, he celebrates.
It’s a moment every hockey player dreams about. You score a big goal and the celebration begins. Sometimes it’s a spontaneous burst of excitement or maybe a simple tapping of the gloves with your teammates on the bench.
Or maybe it’s pretending your stick is on fire.
This season in the NHL, and around the hockey world, goal celebrations were a hot topic. It reached a boiling point when television commentator Don Cherry compared Washington Capitals’ superstar Alexander Ovechkin’s goal celebrations to those favored by soccer players. Even Sidney Crosby weighed in, saying, “I don’t like it personally, but that’s him.”
A former NHL coach, Cherry is something of a Canadian icon, and appears each Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada. During a March segment of “Coach’s Corner,” Cherry, who is known for his old-time hockey rants and his loud suits, said, “We don’t start acting like these goofy soccer guys.”
Ovechkin thought Cherry’s comments were funny.
“I just laughed when I saw his suits,” Ovechkin told The Washington Post. “He’s funny. In hockey we need someone like that, someone who thinks I’m celebrating like a soccer player. Maybe Canadians don’t have soccer teams. Maybe he’s jealous of Russia.”
Three weeks later, the controversy got hotter. Literally.
On March 19, Ovechkin scored his 50th goal of the season during a win in Tampa Bay. After scoring, he dropped to the ice and pretended his stick was too hot to touch. In a post-game interview, Ovechkin said the celebration was suggested by some of his teammates.
Several Lightning players took exception to the celebration, and coach Rick Tocchet told the Tampa Tribune that Ovechkin “came down a notch in [his] book after that.” Cherry also piped in admitting that Ovechkin is “not a mean guy,” but that he needs to step up and be a role model.
Hockey is a sport steeped in tradition and rich with unwritten rules. Some hockey analysts wondered if NFL-style celebrations would make their way to the NHL with players pulling Sharpies out of the net to sign pucks. However, many players and coaches think most hockey people know how to celebrate a goal.
Carolina Hurricanes forward Erik Cole said Ovechkin plays the game wide open and the exuberant goal celebrations are simply part of his style.
“I think for [Ovechkin] it’s a big part of who he is and his personality on the ice. He doesn’t do anything quietly I guess is the best way to say it. He goes full tilt. He’s a guy that gets excited,” Cole said.
Cole has scored big goals for the Hurricanes and for Team USA in the 2006 Olympics. He said the circumstances of the game should dictate the celebration, and also the significance of the moment.
“I think a lot of it is how the moment takes you. You don’t celebrate the 7th goal of a blow out,” he said. “My whole thing with goal celebrations is act like you’ve done it before. [Former Hurricane] Jeff O’Neill said that to me a long time ago.”
Jim Johannson is the assistant executive director for USA Hockey and a two-time U.S. Olympian. An admitted “purist,” Johannson said he doesn’t think Ovechkin’s celebrations are disrespectful to the opposing team. He said having stars is good for the game, but that the way players celebrate goals depends on their personalities. A player like Joe Sakic may simply raise his stick whereas Ovechkin is more prone to slamming his body against the glass.
“I think it’s important to have the different personalities of the players,” said Johannson. “I look at our players; the Mike Modanos and the Keith Tkachuks. Their personas on the ice are different. There is not a right or wrong in how they celebrate.”
Personalities and stars mean more exposure on national television.
“I think knowing [hockey] ranks behind poker on TV, the game needs good characters,” said Dan Brennan, USA Hockey’s manager of coaching education. “I think right now even more so than Crosby, Ovechkin does it better. I have no problem with Ovechkin. He brings a lot of enthusiasm to the game. He doesn’t show his opponents up; he just shows excitement.”
Personalities may be good for the game’s exposure, but Cherry directly addressed youth hockey players when dismissing Ovechkin’s celebrations. Still, kids in the U.S. idolize him.
Paul Fidishun has coached all levels of youth hockey at the Greensboro (N.C.) Ice House. He said that even though kids look up to NHL stars, the coach can teach them how and when to celebrate a goal.
“A lot of it depends on the situation,” Fidishun said. “What we try and teach them, I guess, is just good sportsmanship and respect for the other team.
“Younger kids get excited. It’s just part of the game, and we don’t discourage that.”
Brennan said respect for the opponent and good sportsmanship is learned early at the grass-roots level. He said players can still celebrate their accomplishments without taunting an opponent.
“The one thing that I’ve always loved about our game is the tradition. It’s the only game where at the end players shake hands,” said Brennan, who grew up in British Columbia and played college hockey at Colorado College and professionally in Sweden.
“But I think you can still have fun without disrespecting the other players. There’s fun and then there’s a line there. I think kids can learn that from their coach.”
Cole has made it a priority to teach sportsmanship to his 5-year-old son. He said that whether they play hockey in the driveway or any other game, when it’s over he looks his son in the eye, shakes his hand and says “good game.”
Johannson feels that respect between players is one area where hockey is way ahead of other sports.
“I’d be hard pressed to find a time when someone did something to disrespect the other team,” he said. “I think hockey, as a whole, has done a good job of keeping the lack of respect for opponents in check.”
Still fans come to be entertained, and Johannson said when the stars of hockey put on a good show, it benefits the sport.
“I think when Ovechkin scores his 500th [goal] he’s going to make a show of it,” he said. “Part of that’s good for the game, because guess what will be on Sportscenter?”