Well, it’s finally over. After a month of great, often breathtaking games matches and gorgeous goals, the World Cup finished its 2014 run in Brasil yesterday, leaving us both sad and already overflowing with excitement for 2018 (and 2022 on our home turf?) I watched more soccer football in the last month than I had in my whole life prior, and it’s not even close. Even more, I think I watched more of the beautiful game in the last four weeks than I have of baseball all season. And I love baseball. But the Mets are mediocre and uninspiring, and just plain difficult to watch. And, well, the World Cup worked very well with my current unemployment flexible schedule. Will I continue this trend and begin to tune into MLS games on a regular basis. Probably not (last night’s Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers prime-time matchup notwithstanding). I already went down that road four years when I really thought I was going to be big LA Galaxy fan, and that didn’t last long (but that’s the worldwide appeal of David Beckham, I guess). Truth is, I’ll probably finally get back into baseball post-All-Star break, or, perhaps, if the Mets continue to make mediocre an art form, I’ll just kill time until hockey starts again (whose void was filled so wonderfully, and at just the right time, by the World Cup). But I’ll be ready for 2018 in Russia, and I’ll always treasure the last month, when I felt at one with the world and the world felt like it came to Brooklyn (and I spent way too much time in a bar before 5pm).
My lasting memory, I think, will be that every bar, cafe, restaurant, McDonald’s, hair salon and tax preparation office seemed to be broadcasting the matches, trying to capitalize on a popularity that I didn’t quite realize the tournament possessed. There was no shortage of establishments showing the matches, and, it felt, no shortage of people who were interested in watching. Walking around Brooklyn, it sure felt that soccer, after two decades of promise, had finally arrived.
Our collective fútbol fever may now have subsided, not likely to return for another four years. But from now until then, we’re still infected, with another outbreak just lying in wait, from Brooklyn to Chicago, from Seattle to Kansas City, to Los Angeles to the White House. I look forward to the relapse.
For the past two months, as indicated by my (attempted) playoff beard, I have been fully absorbed with the New York Rangers post-season run, something that has now become, thankfully, an annual occurrence. For years the Rangers franchise (and fanbase) suffered through a post-1994 Stanley Cup Championship hangover, hurling gobs of money at player after overpriced-player, the vast majority of which were either too old or too injured or too ill-suited for Broadway (see: Bure, Pavel; Lindros, Eric; Fleury, Theo; Gomez, Scott; et al). However, this syndrome ended, oddly enough, with the lockout of 2004 and the strong play of another imported superstar, Jaromir Jagr, who bucked the trend and helped turn the Rangers into a perennial playoff team. A decade later the Rangers have established themselves as one of the most consistent teams in the NHL and arguably the most successful in New York (take that, the Liberty!), and, now, they’re about to appear in their first final since that ’94 dream run But before we look too far ahead to Game 1 in Los Angeles tomorrow evening (8pm EST, 5pm Pacific, sometime in between in the midwest), let us quickly look back at that legendary 1994 squad, the team of destiny that exorcised the demons of 1940 and firmly established the likes of Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Adam Graves, Stephane Matteau and even back-up goalie Glenn Healy as immortals, and elevated captain Mark Messiah to legitimate god status. But it’s not any of those champions we want to talk about today; no, right now we’re focused on that young dynamo out of Togliatti, Russia, the one with the fast feet and the quick hands, the one with the broken English and who broke through defenses. That, of course, being Alexei Kovalev. Long before current Rangers defenseman and Minnesota native Ryan McDonagh announced himself as a force on the Rangers blueline for many, many years to come, Kovalev was the premier #27 in a Rangers sweater. His speed, stick-handling and clutch scoring made the right-wing a quick fan favorite at Madison Square Garden, and in only his sophomore year in the NHL he was playing big minutes and scoring big goals. But it wasn’t just his explosive skating, triple dekes and dangerous wrist shot that endeared himself to the Garden faithful. It was also, his big, bright, goofy personality. More specifically, it was his troll. Yes, throughout the ’94 playoffs Kovalev kept a lucky troll doll at his locker. And when the Rangers won the cup, breaking the curse of 1940, the troll was there, sharing in the celebration. What Kovalev might have lacked in English proficiency, he surely made up for with youthful exuberance. With his electric play and a genuine enthusiasm that transcended any language, Kovalev made an indelible mark on that ’94 cup run and on our childhood. And so it was no surprise that his appearance at last week’s Eastern Conference Finals Game 6 at MSG sent the crowed into a mid-game frenzy, showing that if you win in NY, you’re a hero for life. He might be twenty years older, his baby face morphed into the aged countenance of a grizzled hockey veteran, his English no longer just barely comprehensible, but sporting that iconic hat (and surprisingly nondescript official t-shirt), Kovalev is as beloved as he was twenty-years ago, a champion not for a year but for eternity. Now just imagine the reaction had he brought the troll.