MANHATTAN — Alex Ovechkin is sitting in a folding chair in the hallway of 30 Rock with his head in one hand, phone in the other. He looks more like he’s going to a casual restaurant than preparing to appear on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, but that’s indeed what he’s here to do. He’s wearing a gray hoodie, jeans, a black Nike t-shirt, sneakers, and the remains of his salt-and-pepper playoff beard. His hair looks more silvery than usual. Maybe the past four days of partying since the Capitals won the Stanley Cup have sucked out some of the pigment.
It’s hard to tell whether Ovechkin is asleep or scrolling through his phone, but either way, he startles when I approach him. He looks up, bleary-eyed and a little dazed. Hey, you would be too if you’d been on the kind of bender that this hockey star has embarked on. In the past four days he’s done keg stands out of the Stanley Cup, partied with DJ Tiesto in Las Vegas, drank somewhere around one million beers at a Nationals game, swum in a public fountain in Georgetown with his teammates, and slept with the Cup. The trophy has been at his hip—or above his head, or holding his drink—since the end of Game 5, when the Caps finally clinched the championship, the one thing that had eluded them and their perennially heartbroken fan base since the team’s inception.
“It’s been a crazy few days,” Ovechkin says, shaking his head.
I ask if he’s slept at all.
“Only a little,” he says. “Eh, not really. Well, yeah, a little.”
“Where’s the Cup?” I ask. “It seems like you haven’t been apart from it since you guys won.”
“Oh,” he says, “it’s right in there. Just in that room right over there.”
He points to the doorway next to his chair near the wardrobe room, aware at all times of where the priceless hunk of metal is.
“Are you going to drink out of it on the show?” I ask.
“Probably,” he says, smiling his endearing, jack-o-lantern smile. “I don’t know for sure, but yeah, probably.”
Ovechkin’s bender is one of the most inspiring public events in years (Mom and Dad, I’m not advocating for binge drinking. Don’t try this at home, kids.) His antics are fun only because he doesn’t appear to be hurting himself or anyone else, and because he’s earned it by working tirelessly toward the mirage of the Stanley Cup since he entered the league in 2005. But now it’s finally real—it’s in his arms—and there is something thrilling, even mystical about actually making your dreams come true.
One of my favorite things is when athletes totally let loose after they win big. Most of the time, playing professional sports is about saying The Right Thing, and Being a Role Model, and Toeing the Line that your team’s management, your sponsors, and your fans have arbitrarily drawn for you and move, continually, without letting you know. It’s why when athletes do speak out or deviate from their “we’re just thinking about the next game” script, it makes such waves.
But all of that goes out the window when you win a championship. J.R. Smith didn’t wear a shirt for the better part of a year after the Cavaliers won the Finals in 2016. Chris Long dressed up like Allen Iverson and Jason Kelce like some kind of wizard during the Eagles’ celebration. Cubs general manager Theo Epstein ate a goat after the Cubs ended their 108-year drought.
Athlete antics after wins are seldom controversial (unless they’re capital B Bad). With a win comes not only glory and a chance to cement your legacy, but also a free pass to act like a college senior who’s just passed that class they were pretty sure they’d fail. Hardly anyone begrudges these celebrations. We mostly report on it with glee, and you mostly read about it with joy.
Yes, it’s about winning, but it’s also about acknowledging the glorious release of tension. It’s the moment when happily ever after seems possible, before next season starts and the hunt begins all over again. For players, it’s the years and years of wear and tear on their bodies and minds finally paying off. Most of them never get to hoist the greatest reward their sport has to offer. When they do, it’s the highest level of validation.
And it’s freeing to see that. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all take a second and appreciating the few Ws we have managed to collect? If after you land a killer job, or fall in love, or raise a ton of money for a good cause, or have a kid, or even just perfectly cook a steak for once, you could splash around in a fountain and be a total idiot while the world looks on and thinks, “Good for you, pal. Soak it in”?
I’m also just impressed that at 32, Ovechkin can still hang. I’m younger than he is and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have even arrived at The Tonight Show if I’d been raging at the same pace. Instead, Ovechkin makes it to the couch with Caps goalie Braden Holtby. Fallon holds up the latest issue of Sports Illustrated (oh, hey).
“Did you think about growing up and think, ‘I’ll ever see myself on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the Stanley Cup?’” Fallon asks.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Ovechkin says. “Good looking guy, why not?”
The crowd laughs. Fallon has Ovechkin hold his smile for a bit as the cameras zoom in on the holes where some of his teeth used to be.
“You work so hard to get this moment and when you reach this moment you just feel like you can’t believe it,” Ovechkin says. “It’s just amazing how happy everybody is right now. In Washington.”
As they sit there talking about how it took Ovechkin thirteen years to win a title, as well as Holtby’s guitar skills (did you know he played in the locker room before each game as a good luck charm?), production assistants roll out a black piece of cloth on the stage. A man in a suit brings out the Stanley Cup, and two stage managers pour two pitchers of beer into the chalice.
“Probably,” he’d said. Of course. I laugh in my seat in the back row of the audience, which is dotted with people wearing Caps jerseys. Everyone had cheered when Ovechkin and Holtby came out, but the Caps fans stood up and whooped. One even brought a red rally towel from Capital One.
“I heard you brought the Stanley Cup with you tonight, and we might have a drink out of it,” Fallon says, as the lights come up over the trophy.
“Let’s do it,” Ovechkin says, grinning.
They all walk over to the cup as the crowd cheers. Fallon surprises the audience by bringing out Mike Smith, the jockey who won the Triple Crown at Belmont Stakes on Justify this weekend. They drink out of straws for a moment before Fallon gives up, and Ovechkin and Holtby lift him up by his legs so he can drink from the trophy. The audience eats it up as the players put Fallon down. He shakes the beer off his face and thanks them for coming.
Holtby and Ovechkin start to leave the stage, but the Caps fans in the attendance stand up and scream at them. Both guys look up before they exit, spot the red jerseys, and wave.
Fallon checks his mic during the break that follows.
“I don’t think I got any beer on it, I just smell like beer now,” he says to the audience. “Those guys are beasts, right? Hockey or any sport, really, those guys’ll kill you!”
The crowd laughs. Ovechkin and Holtby probably would’ve, too, but they’re already out the door of 30 Rock and headed to their private plane back to D.C. Holtby’s kids are at home with a babysitter and he has to get back to them. But there’s another reason, too, for the rush back to Washington: Tuesday is the Caps’ victory parade. Ovechkin and the team have one more big hurrah — and, let’s be serious, months of medium-sized hurrahs — to get absolutely blitzed out of their minds in public.
And what a glorious thing. All hail the Summer of Ovechkin. We’ve waited long enough for it.