Did Alex Ovechkin Do Anything Wrong Fighting Andrei Svechnikov?

The Carolina Hurricanes won Game 3 over the Washington Capitals in dominating fashion. The score finished 5–0, and the actual game was arguably not even that close. But perhaps the more talked-about storyline from the game was a fight that happened in the first period.

There are several versions of the fight, but it’s obvious to anyone that both Andrei Svechnikov and Alex Ovechkin were willing combatants. But the optics of a 33-year-old standing over the 19-year-old he just knocked out cold are, admittedly, pretty bad.

Ovechkin, though, didn’t do anything against hockey’s famous unwritten “code.” Fighting is a crucial piece of that code, and it’s in place partly to keep player behavior in line. Svechnikov appears to have challenged Ovechkin to the fight, and he knew the risks when he did so.

Those who have vilified Ovechkin (mostly residents of North Carolina) have claimed that Ovechkin shouldn’t be fighting a kid 40 pounds lighter and 14 years younger. But that criticism ignores several crucial points.

First, Svechnikov isn’t some tiny kid, even by NHL standards. If the 6-feet 3-inch, 235 pound Ovechkin fought, say, all 5-feet 9-inches and 160 pounds of the Calgary Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau, it’d be a different story. But Svechnikov is 6-feet 2-inches and 200 pounds. He’s no shrimp, and the implicit argument these Ovechkin-haters are making is actually rather demeaning to the physically gifted Svechnikov.

Second, Carolina as an organization has decided to play the 19-year-old in the big boy league. They obviously determined that he was ready to play against men, both mentally and physically. If he can’t handle the NHL without challenging bigger, older players to fights, then he shouldn’t be there. That, by the way, isn’t the case; the highly talented Svechnikov belongs in the NHL, but again the implication from his defenders is actually that he isn’t ready to handle it.

Moreover, Ovechkin isn’t a goon by any stretch of the imagination. He’s fought only four times in his 14 years in the NHL, most recently in 2010. He’s known for his hard hitting and physical style, but has rarely crossed the line into illegal or dangerous hits. When he has, it’s been the result of the energy he plays with, not malice or intent to injure. If this incident was part of a pattern, there would be a problem, but that’s simply not the case.

Many have suggested that Ovechkin should’ve just refused the fight. It’s not that simple. Svechnikov had been going after Ovechkin all series, and the code allows fighting to respond to that. I hesitate to say it’s “lesson teaching” because I don’t think knocking a player out should ever be the way to teach them a lesson, and I’m sure Ovechkin didn’t intend to knock Svechnikov out. Still, fighting exists in hockey to make players answerable to their own actions.

Also, imagine a scenario in which Ovechkin refuses a fight from a 19-year-old. The same people criticizing him for taking the fight would instead be calling him weak and scared.

I don’t mean any of this to say that I liked what happened. I certainly don’t think it was Svechnikov’s fault, and I absolutely hate to see any player get hurt, especially with a head injury. I genuinely believe Ovechkin feels badly about what happened despite the fact that he knows he had no other choice. Svechnikov is younger than I am, and it’s hard to see him go down like that.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said after the game he was “sickened” by the fight. I was too. It revived legitimate conversations about whether fighting belongs in hockey. But for the time being, fighting exists, and the code includes it. Judged by the code, Ovechkin didn’t do anything wrong.

-Tiger Bjornlund

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