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Hockey, as played by rising Russian star

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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.


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