Hockey, as played by rising Russian star

Somehow, the International Olympic Committee has to find a way to give Alexander Ovechkin a gold medal. That might be tricky, considering he plays hockey, and the Olympics aren't in the habit of handing out individual ice-hockey medals.

But to be frank, this has become his show.

In this men's hockey tournament, so much has gone right. Forget the woes of the board-banging North Americans. This has been about hockey played the way hockey should be played - at blitzkrieg pace with the puck snapping from stick to stick through center ice.

Yet as four European teams prepare to play in Friday night's semifinals, perhaps nothing has gone quite as right as Alexander Ovechkin.

To hockey fans, the kid who has outplayed fellow rookie Sidney Crosby - the anointed "next Wayne Gretzky" - needs no introduction. But perhaps the world needs one, and Ovechkin has made the Olympics his personal audition for the sort of superstardom that ends in statues and honorary street names.

After Russia beat Canada Wednesday with an offensive game plan of "get [Ovechkin] the puck to let him score," according to teammate Alexei Yashin, no less a person than Wayne Gretzky weighed in. "There's no question he's the most exciting" player in hockey, he said in a press conference after Canada's loss.

Then, in a nod to his own accomplishments, Gretzky added: "When he wins four Stanley Cups, I'll put him up there" with the best. There will be time for that. After all, he's only 20.

For the moment, though, all he can do is win gold in Turin. And he has become the spark for a team that, since Soviet days, has had the knack of collapsing under the weight of its own egos - underperforming at all the most important moments.

Yet here, the Russians have represented all that is inspiring about Olympic hockey. They are young, they are fast, they are enormously skilled, and they have demonstrated that crucial quality that has deserted them in the recent past - desire.

On the ice, no one embodies that more than Ovechkin. His goal celebrations are delightfully inept. While other players stand statuesque waiting for their glamour shot or pump their fist with teeth-gritted intensity, Ovechkin hurtles around the rink with all the composure of a 5-year-old, jumping and teetering wildly as if he has never done anything so wonderful before.

But he has, many times. Actually, he's the second leading scorer in the tournament, and with the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals, he has managed to score 39 goals for a team so anonymous that its players' pictures should be on milk cartons, not trading cards.

There is a video clip circulating around the Internet that has gained almost cult status among hockey fans. In it, Ovechkin somehow scores a goal for the Capitals while sliding flat on the ice with his back to the net. On Wednesday, he merely scored the goal to eliminate the defending Olympic champions.

In his press conference after the loss, Gretzky mentioned the word "devastating" at least 566 times. But when the architect of Team Canada mentioned Ovechkin, the clouds lifted, even if just for a moment: "He's the only kid I've ever coached against who, when he scored, he blew me a kiss," says Gretzky, referring to play in the NHL, where he coaches the Phoenix Coyotes.

Ovechkin could have done the same on Wednesday. If hockey had a kiss-and-cry area, he would be sitting there with a string of perfect 6.0s - or whatever the current equivalent is.

For comparison's sake, he is no Gretzky. He does not float expectantly into the offensive zone, as Gretzky did, twisting the knobs of his inner transistor until he found the right frequency, which seemed to resolve the static of 12 angry men on skates into a harmony only he heard. Ovechkin is all speed, a flashbulb of energy, blinding in his explosiveness.

And that is Olympic hockey. Some question whether these occasionally ill-behaved millionaires really embody the Olympic ideal. Others wonder whether pro hockey should shut down for two weeks every four years.

Perhaps professional hockey should shut down in favor of Olympic-style hockey every year. Here in international competition the rink is bigger, the play faster, the pure adrenaline of hockey more apparent. The North American teams, who love to bump into each other in the tight corners of their smaller rinks, never quite cottoned on. "We weren't quick enough to adapt to that game," said Canada coach Pat Quinn.

So much the better. While Canada brought a cast of characters who are greatly skilled, but big enough for a boxing match, the Europeans brought smaller, faster players and skated circles around them.

It has been enormously entertaining, and - as the Games should be - a showcase of sport at the highest level. And there are still two more nights of Alexander Ovechkin.

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