What I’m thankful for in 2016

Although I grew up in a country that includes no similar date on the calendar, “Thanksgiving”, an holiday originally “celebrated as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and the preceding year” is a tradition that I respect, even if the evolution of modern societies has diluted the meaning of it and its religious and cultural roots are disregarded by most these days.

Therefore, since I hold some appreciation for the values that are (supposed to be) exalted on Thanksgiving,  I decided to take Christmas time, a period based on much of the same ideals, to reflect and be grateful for what the subject of this blog, sports, inspires in me every day.

The result is the following miscellanea of topics, a list that, despite inherently personal, I believe is much less about my own preferences than the experience and pleasure one takes from the deeply misguided love for sports.

A final remark: While necessarily influenced by it, the choices don’t reflect only what happened over the last 12 months.

Jaromír Jágr – Recency bias be damned, it’s an absolute joy to be able to follow the footsteps of one of ice hockey’s greats as he approaches age 45. I may have lost his time for the team I support and definitely haven’t forgot the sting of his decision to spurn a return in favour of signing for the cross-state rivals, yet can’t stop admiring his uplifting love for the game, inexorable work ethic and ability to stay competitive night after night facing guys that weren’t even born when he was an NHL rookie, back in 1990-1991.

Jaromír Jágr's flow in all its glory at age 44

Jaromír Jágr’s flow in all its glory at age 44

Jágr still got that singular propensity to stuck his bottom out and protect the puck like very few can, the fluidity to weave through the neutral zone and gain the line with possession and the vision to offer his teammates easy tap-ins. If he says his legs haven’t slowed down and he can handle the load of an entire season, who are we to disagree? You can make it to 50, Jags!

The wealth of young NHL talent – The best hockey league in the world is, by definition, stacked with elite players at every position, nonetheless the recent influx of newcomers that can take over games right from the get-go has to be described as unusual and extraordinary, and you have to look no further than Team North America’s showings at the World Cup of hockey to illustrate the point.

Connor McDavid, a once-in-a generation prodigy with lightning acceleration and a phenomenal ability to execute in full speed, obviously leads the charge, but he’s not short on dazzling running mates. Jack Eichel, McDavid’s bridesmaid who can hammer one-timers from the right slot on his sleep. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary’s elusive offensive dynamo. Toronto’s rookie trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, who have electrified an entire city. Finland’s Patrik Laine, ripping pucks into the upper-corners from the top of the circles with the same nonchalance employed while dealing with the media. Show-stopping talents like Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Drouin, Mike Hoffman, Leon Draisatl or Mark Scheifele.

Patrik Laine's shot has earned rave reviews during his first NHL season

Patrik Laine’s shot has earned rave reviews during his first NHL season

All names that may one day figure in the Hall of Fame, alongside the rest of the League’s stars in their prime, such as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane, and without disregarding the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, John Tavares, Jamie Benn, Erik Karlsson, Nikita Kucherov or Claude Giroux.

The future is bright for the NHL should they understand how to take advantage of the embarrassment of riches that fell on their lap, which contributed to a move towards a much faster, more entertaining version where skill is more important than ever before.

3-on-3 overtime – One year has passed since its introduction at the NHL level and more top leagues are already following suit hoping to ride the wave of success. While coaches have made strides in bringing structure and trying to reign in their players, there’s only so much they can do to slow down the game with an inordinate amount of ice available. The 3-on-3 overtime is enthralling on its Intensity, pulsating and dramatic on its inherent chaos, a cradle of end-to-end action, odd-man rushes, turnovers, chances, near-misses, startling saves and… goals. Some criticize it for resembling pond hockey..but where’s the harm on that?

Lionel Messi – Like him there has never been and never will be. The ultimate talent powered by (near) flawless decision making, immaculate technical skill and advanced vision and perception of the game. Leo apprehends, selects and executes before the rest and better, and that’s why he’s peerless. The prototype of the human brain solving problems at high speed and driving football’s running and unrelenting evolution towards an era where sheer physical prowess will be essentially irrelevant.

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi, the best football player ever

Some fifty years from now, when those at the different levels and spheres of influence will be equipped with a superior understanding of the game, the next generations will laugh at “our” decisions to elect others based on the random outcome of a couple of games per year.

Peter Sagan – A unique figure inside cycling’s world, a sport still trying to overcome an uphill battle to restore credibility and regain fans. While the clashes on the mountains, that made so many fell in love with bike racing, can’t escape the veil of suspect, what Peter Sagan does can only be admired, which means you’ll have a hard time finding someone that actively roots against him.

Whether he is squeezing through the middle of the bunch to secure a sprint victory, jumping the gun to escape and arrive by himself, powering up a hill to a finish or collaborating doggedly on a breakaway, Sagan’s versatility is mind-boggling yet only a reflection of his personality. The Slovak is a risk-taker, follows his instincts, never gives up in face of adversity and has a hell of a time riding his bike, enjoying himself and entertaining the fans. In the end, we’re all looking for fun and Peter Sagan delivers that in spades.

The Big Four (Five?) – With Federer and Nadal sidelined for much of the year, the incredible supremacy exerted by tennis’ Big Four wasn’t exactly paraded throughout 2016, yet the season confirmed two other talking points.

First, despite a meagre Grand Slam total (3), Andy Murray’s evolution has led him to a level where’s he’s every bit part of the group. Knocking Djokovic off the perch and securing the No.1 in London with authority were the final formalities for a man that’s no longer the guy the other three secretly hope to face in the semi-finals.

The remaigning doubts about Andy Murray's greatness were erased in 2016

The remaigning doubts about Andy Murray’s greatness were erased in 2016

Meanwhile, Stan Wawrinka’s sensational panache at the Majors guarantees that the competition tightens up, at least, from the last eight onwards. If we ever get Juan Martin Del Potro back to his best (and that’s a big if with those wrists), we can have as much as six clear-cut contenders with Grand Slam triumphs on their résumé and a plethora of dark-horses trying the bridge the gap (looking at you, Raonic and Nishikori). We may be in for a dandy of a season in 2017.

Angelique Kerber – With all due respect for Serena Williams’ application to the title of best female athlete of all-time, her towering presence over the rest of the field in the WTA Tour well into her thirties is (was) boring. For different reasons, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka were never able to consistently challenge her, therefore Angelique Kerber’s rise was a breath of fresh air. Helped by Serena’s minimalist calendar? Definitely. However, raise your hand if you believed any player other than Serena could win two Grand Slams in the same season?

While I’m not convinced the German can clamp down the World No.1 for long, she has already done the most important. She changed the paradigm and kicked off the dog-fight to pronounce a new Queen. Let the Hunger Games begin!

The Olympic legends of our time – In 120 years of modern Olympic action, countless athletes have produced epic sports moments in the biggest stage of them all. However, few were able to elevate their respective sports, the Olympic movement and its motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” quite like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. We should be forever grateful for the chance to witness their incredible exploits in the beginning of the XXI century, achievements that will resonate for generations to come and conveyed to our children and grandchildren.

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, arguably the two greatest Olympians of all-time

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, arguably the two greatest Olympians of all-time

As their careers end, new heroes will take over and the show will continue, but we shouldn’t take for granted the unique opportunity to appreciate true, unrepeatable greatness. May their spirit inspire the ones to come.

Sports fans – An integral part of all memorable sports achievements and condition sine qua non for spectacles that bring together the world, sports fans can entertain, impress and inspire as much as the ones they support.

From the kind, joyful and passionate Brazilian fans at the Olympics, cherishing the opportunity of a lifetime at every arena even when their athletes didn’t stand a chance or even took part, to the hordes of Iceland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Ireland supporters that provided a singular beauty to the Euro 2016. From the deafening rendition of “You’ll never walk alone” by Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund fans in unison on their Europa League double-header, to the emotional tributes all over the world after Chapecoense’s tragedy, especially the touching reaction from Atletico Nacional (and Colombian) fans. From the masses that crowd the roadsides of Belgium during the spring, the peak of cycling’s classics season, to every fan that hit the road and dispensed hard-earned money and time simply to voice the support for his colours miles away from home.

My teams – For so many wonderful memories, which I will treasure for a long time, and for hitting the jackpot in 2016.

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