“Our steam-roller methods are getting too hard for your sensitive soul. Is that it? The [Golden] Knight is getting too big for us. My methods have been all right for the past twenty years, [Alex]. Since I picked you out of a fly-specked hole in the wall and blew you up to look like a [Capital]. And now you can’t stand…” So said Jim Taylor in the 1939 hit “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Russians in the Oval Office
The Washington Capitals visited the White House on Monday, March 25, 2019 to celebrate their Stanley Cup series win back in June of last year. Despite the controversies borne of this decision to visit, the Capitals presented Donald Trump a Washington Capitals sweater with the number “45” and an engraved gold hockey stick. The team took a 45-minute tour of the White House before meeting Trump in the Oval Office. Trump extended words of praise towards the team and their accomplishment while wishing them luck in their current endeavor to repeat as champions. Captain Alex Ovechkin gave his teammates a vote of confidence in response.
Controversy Surrounds Visit
It was no secret that three members of the 2017-18 Washington Capitals were absent from the visit. Devante Smith-Pelly, Brett Connolly, and Braden Holtby declined to join the team for the trip. Smith-Pelly stated his intentions back in June. “The things that [Donald Trump] spews are straight-up racist and sexist, I already have my mind made up.” Connolly stated his intentions to support his teammate by insisting that it has “nothing to do with politics, it’s about what’s right and what’s wrong, and we’ll leave it at that.”
A week before the visit, Holtby also made a statement prior to the trip stating that he had to stay true to his values and respectfully declined to go. Holtby is the Capitals’ Ambassador for the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
Diplomacy on the Part of Orpik
Many of the their teammates expressed excitement for this opportunity with words such as, “happy,” “amazing,” “pretty cool.” Defenseman Brooks Orpik took a more diplomatic approach. He opined that the visit is not an “endorsement of whoever’s in office.” He was also quoted as saying, “We all have our opinions on it; it’s a very sensitive issue. It’s just kind of the way things are going these days. If you don’t have the same belief as somebody else then automatically they think you’re wrong and they take it personally, which politics isn’t supposed to be that way. You’re allowed to have disagreement, but my opinion is that you’re supposed to respect the other person’s decision.”
The team has stood resolute in their assertion that they support each others’ decisions. Holtby came out by saying that their sights are set on hockey. He was confident in his team’s unity despite differing opinions and attendance.
Amidst all of this controversy, where did this tradition begin?
Of Course It Was Baseball
The tradition of championship teams visiting the White House started with the pennant-winning Washington Senators. They began the tradition when visiting President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. The NBA furthered the tradition when the Boston Celtics went in 1963 after being invited by President John F. Kennedy. The Pittsburgh Steelers broke the plane in 1980 to visit President Jimmy Carter, and the Pittsburgh Penguins entered the zone in 1991 to visit President George H.W. Bush.
There have been a myriad of athletes that have declined a visit to the White House during the current administration. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and the Philadelphia Eagles are amongst the athletes that have declined a visit. In turn, Trump rescinded his invitations to those teams after the organizations’ players announced that they would not attend. Trump’s words of “You know, my attitude is if they want to be here, the greatest place on Earth, I’m here. If they don’t want to be here, I don’t want them,” these words came after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018.
The Original from an Original Six
The first NHL player to decline the invitation to go to the White House was back in 2011. Tim Thomas, then a member of the Boston Bruins, declined the invitation to visit President Barack Obama. Thomas posted a public statement citing his personal disagreements with the Obama administration. Like Connolly, Thomas stated that, “This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an individual.”
Despite Thomas’ absence, President Obama made glowing remarks about him during his speech. Obama spoke of “This Stanley Cup was won by defense as much as by offense. Tim Thomas posted two shutouts in the Stanley Cup finals and set an all-time record for saves in the postseason, and he also earned the honor being only the second American ever to be recognized as the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP.”
Will the [Capital] yield?
What will come from this year’s Stanley Cup Champion? Time will tell. The push to the playoffs is in full force and Mr. Ovechkin and company are in a great place. There are many teams that will challenge the Capitals in their chase for back-to-back Cups. The heavy favorite, the Tampa Bay Lightning, could possibly ensure that there will be yet another Russian, or three, in the White House next year. Whether they will accept or decline an invitation is up in the air Like Mr. Smith, the Capitals are not out of it and still stand firmly saying, “No, sir, I will not yield!”