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Kaapo Kakko fans take hero worship to a new level

Ryan Mead, 29, a Bay Shore native, poses

Ryan Mead, 29, a Bay Shore native, poses with New York Rangers second-overall pick Kaapo Kakko during a season-ticket holders event in June. Photo Credit: Dan LaRose

It’s not hard to pick out Ryan Mead at a New York Rangers event. He’s the one in robes and bishop’s headgear.

As the self-proclaimed pope of the “Church of Kakko,” he lords over the Rangers’ faithful who are certain that first-round draft pick Kaapo Kakko can help turn things around for a franchise that announced its official rebuild in 2018.

Mead, a 29-year-old Bay Shore native, wants people to know that he is respectful of people’s beliefs and that his website dedicated to the Finnish phenom is based on absurdity.

“We’ve had the Henrik Lundqvist era and now we’re going to the Kaapo Kakko era,” Mead said, referring first to the goalie who has been the face of the Rangers for over a decade. “What better way to transition into that?”

Mead, who spends his days selling software in Patchogue and, for the last four years, has cohosted the weekly Rangers podcast “Blueshirts Breakaway,” likes to say the idea for the Church came to him in a dream, but the truth is he, simply, thought it would be fun.

“I thought this would be one of the most ridiculous and fun things I could do to celebrate getting the second overall pick,” he said.

Kakko, 18, appears happy to go along with it.

When Mead appeared dressed in full “church” regalia at a Rangers season-ticketholder event in June, he introduced himself to Kakko, posed for photos and got an autograph on his ornate headgear.

“He doesn’t smile for anybody in any picture, but this picture with me, he’s smiling the biggest he’s ever smiled,” Mead said. “If he wanted me to stop, like I got an email that said, ‘I’d really prefer you didn’t do this anymore,’ we’d stop, but we do a lot of stuff like this. It’s fun and I don’t have any shame in that.”

Mead said he was aware of Kakko before he was drafted, when he played in Liiga, the Finnish Elite League, and at the 2019 IIHF World Championships in May. Kakko scored six goals and dished out an assist in 10 games at the tournament, helping Finland capture a gold medal. It was Kakko’s third gold in a 13-month span after also skating for Finland at the 2018 IIHF U18 World Championship and the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.

The performance sparked plenty of buzz, particularly among Rangers fans after the Blueshirts drew the No. 2 pick in the NHL Draft Lottery in April. Suddenly, Mead said fans who had resigned themselves to a multi-year rebuild were looking to Kakko as a light, a generational talent who could jump-start the squad as soon as he laced up his skates.

Mead brought up the idea for the Church of Kakko on an episode of Blueshirts Breakaway, without telling his cohost Greg Kaplan beforehand, and reached out to longtime listeners Bob Kawa for a website and Nick DePalo for merchandise. The group spent about two-and-a half weeks working on the website and merchandise design and everything went live a week before the Draft.

“[Ryan] sent me the idea and I thought it was ridiculous,” said Kawa, 31, a website designer in upstate Oneonta. “But it sounded fun and I don’t get the opportunity to design things for fields that I’m super passionate about at work.”

The Church of Kakko is far from traditional hero worship, but Mead said that was the point. He’s relished in the humor of it, quick to point out that this isn’t out of character for him or the podcast, and it didn’t take long for the site to become a hit.

Fans started adding #PraiseBe to any tweet about Kakko and Mead said his personal Twitter account recorded 1.5 million impressions in the two weeks after the Church went live, gaining over 1,600 followers.

Mead also said the podcast’s listener numbers have grown by the thousands, including an extra 3,000 listeners when the Church of Kakko was announced.

“I knew it would pick up steam, but I had no idea it was going to do what it’s done,” said Kaplan, 30, a TV producer in the Albany area. “The Rangers haven’t had this kind of guy before and that excitement around your own prospect is next level. Ryan was smart enough to dig into that.”

“I thought maybe 10 diehard fans would think it was hilarious and then some people, would be like, ‘Why are you making fun?’” added DePalo, 29, a Staten Island native. “I don’t have words to describe the reaction.”

There have been critics and missteps along the way — the original merchandise showed Kakko shooting with the wrong hand — but, for the most part, the response has been positive, with several Finnish newspapers picking up the story, Mead said. His goal, he said, wasn’t to offend anyone, but “to do something fun before the season.”

Mead has big plans for his so-called church. He’s working on getting robes in Rangers colors, is planning a rally outside Madison Square Garden when the Rangers open the season against Winnipeg on Oct. 3 and said his goal is to have fans shout “Praise Be” after every Kakko goal.

“This is a very hopeful and great time for the Rangers,” Mead said. “It’s a fun time to enjoy. That was the reason I did it. Let’s have a good time, let’s all get a little ridiculous.”

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