If part of the reason you watch sports is to see things that will live forever, then Tuesday was a day for you.
We’ll start in Chicago, not because I live there but because it’s where Alex Ovechkin was sentenced to play hockey on Tuesday night. Ovi was three goals shy of 800, and four shy of tying Gordie Howe for second all-time. Now, whether goals against the Blackhawks these days actually count as NHL goals is a valid debate, but the NHL hasn’t decreed that they shouldn’t. So it wasn’t too much of a shock when Ovechkin poured in another hat trick, both given the incompetence of the opponent and his own determination and lethalness.
It’s an impossible number to get one’s arms around. It’s why there have only been three guys to ever do it. And why it’s been 25 years since anyone cracked it at all. Connor McDavid, probably the most gifted and complete player to come into the NHL in decades, would need to score 50 goals per season for the next 10 years to get there. Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin’s contemporary, is 266 goals short of such a mark.
It’s hard to even find a correlation in another sport. 700 home runs are probably it, except one guy who got there (Barry Bonds) keeps having his name rubbed off the whiteboard by the keepers of all that is holy in baseball. But home runs aren’t like goals, exactly. There is something more singular about a goal in hockey, whereas home runs are just one way to score.
Ovechkin, as said in this dojo many times, is already the greatest scorer in NHL history. Two work stoppages and COVID have kept him from hauling in Wayne Gretzky already, which he would have and still will sometime in the 2024-2025 season. Given the way the game has been played in Ovi’s career versus the way it was played in Gretzky’s, Ovechkin’s 800 goals right now are equivalent to 900-1,000 in Gretzky’s time, if not more. The goalies are highly-tuned athletes instead of the shortest and maybe most sober guy on the team (a low and hazy bar in the 80s). Defensive systems actually exist and are highly rehearsed and taut, instead of the stand-over-there methods of Gretzky’s time. Players aren’t afraid to block shots and frequently do, whereas in 1987 getting in front of a slapper was considered a daredevil sport.
It’s just…so many goals! It’s 18 years of opponents making Ovechkin priority 1, 2, and 3 in their defensive zone and being unable to do anything to stop him. It’s 18 years of players looking for him immediately every shift and still finding an open spot on the ice. 18 years of goalies anticipating the puck getting to him and Ovi firing away, and still merely being thankful he didn’t remove their ear.
There has to be such a bloody-mindedness to being consistently the league’s best scorer that Ovechkin has been. Or in modern parlance, a Kobe-brain. Kobe-brain was definitely detrimental to the Lakers at points, but it’s also why he was one of the best to ever do it. A singular determination and feel to keep being on top. Ovechkin has never been nor will ever be the world’s most complete player. But they still decide games on who scores more goals. It’s still the hardest thing to do in the game. If you’re going to do only one thing, you’d make it this thing. And Ovechkin has made it his thing better than anyone else ever has.
800 goals. There are just so few numbers in sports that we can’t comprehend by merely reading them. Numbers that are too large, too infrequently untouched, not even thought of as possible. That’s one of them. It’s the sports version of walking on the moon. Just too far and too much that goes into it that we can’t even come to terms with to have happened. The number of little things upon little things that combine and add up to this massive accomplishment You just marvel, knowing it’s beyond epic without ever having an exact hold on just how much so.
On the other side of the globe, Lionel Messi was doing his thing again. We mentioned his assist in the World Cup diary, but you can’t see it enough:
Perhaps it’s the laconic way he plays the game now, only spurting into life as much as he has to during the 90 minutes. But Messi scored Argentina’s opening goal of the tournament, He would have had another assist if Lautaro Martinez wasn’t infinitesimally offside. When the nerves were puke-worthy against Mexico, he crashed one in from 25 yards. He scored the first goal against Australia. That simply illegal assist against the Netherlands. And now this.
Maybe Messi doesn’t take whole games over, as his 35-year-old legs can’t anymore. He picks his spots, and yet those spots are taking a whole tournament over. Great players always say they didn’t truly reach above the clouds until they let the game come to them instead of trying to force it. Messi was one of the few that could force it when he was younger and have it work, and now has transitioned into letting games come to him and still dominating them. There are 10 or 20 minutes swaths where he barely touches the ball, and then the next five minutes he’s putting the other 11 in a blender.
What a treat of a day it ended up being.