Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
Because of that face. It is not a pretty face; better yet, it's not close to being prettifiable. It is what used to be called a "mug" -- nose twisted here and there, mouth punctuated by a tooth-gap big enough for a trans-Siberian engine to tunnel through, matted hair framing it like a Cro-Magnon's after a day spent tracking mastodon. It is the face of a workman, not a wanna-be model, the face of a man who would shove you down a ravine just to see you bounce. Drop Alexander Ovechkin on a street corner with Dick Butkus, Al Hrabosky and Sonny Liston, I guarantee he fits right in. I also guarantee you turn on your heel, and walk away fast.
Because Washington, D.C., is usually a city impermeable to fun. It's a hanging-judge sober, self-important town, and so, its NFL Redskins own the sports scene and make it a deadly dull succession of stories about losing, Daniel Snyder, new head coach, losing, what'd-Riggo-say?, losing, new head coach, awful traffic, bad stadium, lame-ass fans who let Steelers fans take over their bad stadium, losing, losing, hey-what-about Joe Gibbs!, losing. Because its Wizards stink, too, and the Nationals opened a new stadium in 2008 and guess what? Losing! But last spring, Ovechkin and his Capitals snapped the horrible, mediocre sports stranglehold, and electrified the whole bland scene in a way that didn't seem possible. He became the town's first MVP since -- perfect -- Joe Theisman in 1983. He made snooty, above-it-all D.C. feel, for the first time, like an actual sports town.
Because he's foreign. Better yet, because he's Russian at a time when the most prominent sporting Russian is karate-chopping, torso-exposing, saber-rattling, ex-KGB aspiring czar Vladimir Putin, and we want to extend a friendly hand and nominate for this award someone who doesn't hail from the continental U.S. -- especially one who, by learning English and so happily extending himself to his fans, single-handedly shows that not every Russian is as dark and complex as a Dostoyevsky novel. The world is flat, we're told by all the gasbags in D.C., but so are our wallets, so in the spirit of international peace, understanding and lower gas prices, we hope the Russian people accept this with good grace, open up the spigots on their vast oil reserves, and send over more leggy models and tennis players in gratitude.
Because, of course, of what he did on the ice. In the 2007-08 season Ovechkin scored 65 goals -- the first player to do so in 12 years -- broke the NHL scoring record for a left wing, tallied 112 points and won the Hart Trophy. Along the way he reversed the Capitals' seeming inevitable dive to the standings' basement, led the team into the playoffs and scored the game-winning goal in his first postseason game. But he wasn't just about numbers. Ovechkin did all that after signing the richest contract in NHL history, in a style that left mouths agape and eyes popped; night after night he scored in ways you hadn't seen before, hit opponents with joyous abandon, pounded his fists on the glass in celebration and made it seem like he wanted every screaming soul in the arena out there with him.
Because I was in Beijing. I saw Michael Phelps unleash that chop-stroke to keep his eight-medal quest alive, and I saw Usain Bolt run that astonishing 200-meter race to break the world record, and I know those were the two most important sports accomplishments of the year -- and neither one came close. Neither the Swimming Cube nor the Bird's Nest produced half the energy of any Capitals game last spring, when Ovechkin would score and the Verizon Center sounded like a rocket at blastoff; neither event produced the wonder caused when civic pride fuses with the rare moment when you're sure you're watching the blossoming of something special.
Because of all that, Alexander Ovechkin is my choice for 2008 Sportsman of the Year. Because if you disagree, I half-suspect I could ring him up and let him know and I wouldn't be surprised, even, if he showed up on your doorstep. Just for the fun of it.