Friday, February 01, 2008

I Have Seen the Future of Sports on TV …

… and its name is NHL hockey in high-definition. More specifically, Alex Ovechkin in HD.

For reasons I still don’t quite understand, I was a passionate hockey fan as a child. I followed the Caps on a game-by-game basis, even though they were only slightly better than mediocre and always seemed to lose to the Penguins in the playoffs. My favorite player back then was powerful defenseman Dino Cicarelli, who owned one of the hottest slapshots in the entire league.

I also don’t know when my passion for hockey faded, but by the time I left home for college, I could care less. And why should I? By that time the National Hockey League was beginning a long downward spiral that eventually led to contentious labor negotiations and the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. The NHL was left for dead.

HDTV may just be its defibrillator.

Hockey has always been known for its thrilling in-person experience, but the energy, speed, and violence never quite translated to television—until now. Believe me when I tell you the game looks completely different in high-def. It’s a revelation. Under the old broadcasting system, the camera zoomed all over the rink in an attempt to keep up with the puck, a narrow focus that oftentimes left hardly any players in view; with HD’s significantly wider camera angle, the entire zone (from the blue line to the goal) is in the picture at all times, and you can actually see the plays develop. You can see a brawny defenseman line up a bone-jarring hit from the other side of the rink. You can see a wily winger move into an empty hole and wait for a perfect pass.

Which brings me to one Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin is the Capitals’ 22-year-old Russian phenom. A left winger, Alex the Great (to pick one of about a dozen nicknames), leads the NHL in goals (42), points (70), and power play goals (16). Last night against Montreal, he scored 4 goals, including the game-winner in overtime (he also assisted on the team’s other goal).

He is, quite simply, Michael Jordan on ice skates. And anyone who knows me should also know I don’t make that comparison lightly. Like Jordan, Ovechkin makes every other player around him look slower, less coordinated, … dimmer. Like Jordan, Ovechkin seems to be able to enforce his will on his competition, and seemingly with ease. Like Jordan, Ovechkin is magnetic to watch, and you expect him to do something spectacular on every shift—he seems to make plays on a regular basis most other players could only dream of accomplishing once in their careers. The intensity of the game picks up when he jumps on the ice, and he puts incredible pressure on opposing goalies.

And, perhaps most important, like Jordan Ovechkin may have found his own Scottie Pippen in center Nicklas Backstrom, a rookie from Sweden who is helping to take Ovechkin’s game to a new level. Since he moved to Ovechkin’s line, Washington’s been on a tear; the Caps won nine games in January, the first time the team’s earned that many victories in a month in decades. The Caps’ scoring is through the roof, sparked by the dynamic duo’s aggressive play. They are pure joy to watch.

I certainly have no idea if the NHL will ever regain even a semblance of its previous popularity. What I certainly do know is that watching Alex Ovechkin play in high-def is downright intoxicating. If you don’t believe me, check out the video below. Then imagine that looking about a million times better.

Can you say Bulls vs. Lakers, circa 1991? Yeah, you know the play.

If anything can save this league, it’s No. 8 in full, glorious HD.

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