The Washington Capitals wouldn’t have far to travel if they win the Stanley Cup and are invited to be honored at the White House. But if the Capitals take the Cup home and are summoned to a ceremony with President Trump, a short trip will surely turn into a long and contentious discussion.
Trump’s decision to disinvite the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from a planned White House ceremony has triggered debates over the purpose of sports teams’ visits and whether politics should influence the decision to go. Is visiting the White House an endorsement of the occupant, or can it simply be taken as a unique chance to see the people’s house? Would a congratulatory phone call from the president suffice, or is it necessary for teams to wait hours to pose for photos and present him a jersey he will never wear?
The NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have made their positions clear.
“I know no matter who wins this series, no one wants the invite anyway,” Cavaliers forward LeBron James told reporters this week. “So it won’t be Golden State or Cleveland going.”
The inclinations of the Stanley Cup finalists aren’t obvious, but one team will have to make a decision. The Capitals are one victory from clinching their first championship and they can do that by ending the storybook season of the fading Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday in Game 5 of the Cup Final, at T-Mobile Arena. If the Golden Knights win, Game 6 will be played Sunday at Washington. A seventh game would be June 13 at Las Vegas.
“That’s probably the last thing we’re worried about,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt said Wednesday when asked whether he’d want to go to the White House, and that’s fair enough because Washington’s lead of three games to one makes survival his team’s priority.
Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb also said a White House invitation isn’t on his radar.
“I’m sure we’d talk about it as a team but I’m pretty sure no one would have an issue with it,” McNabb said. “But we’ve got a long ways to go.”
Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, a San Francisco native, paused when asked whether he’d favor visiting the White House. He has done so twice, with his Boston College team when George W. Bush was president and with the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins when Barack Obama was in office.
“I think we spent about two minutes with the actual president of the three or four hours that you’re there. It won’t be my decision, so I won’t have to make it,” Orpik said.
“It’s a really cool experience from the past. I think no matter what your political views are, it’s a really fun thing to do with your team. It’s an opportunity that you don’t get back. You have one chance to do it. My opinion is you put your political views aside and you enjoy it as a team. But that’s just in general. We can adjust that after somebody wins this thing.”
If the Capitals win, forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who is black and was the target of racist comments in Chicago this season, indicated to Canada’s Postmedia he would skip a meeting with Trump.
“The things that he spews are straight-up racist and sexist,” Smith-Pelly said. “Some of the things he’s said are pretty gross. I’m not too into politics, so I don’t know all his other views, but his rhetoric I definitely don’t agree with. It hasn’t come up here, but I think I already have my mind made up.”
NHL players are generally less politically outspoken than their NFL and NBA counterparts. That’s likely because hockey values the team over the individual and players often are uncomfortable standing out from the crowd. Also, the league is still dominated by Canadian-born players, though not as much as a decade or two ago.
Goaltender Tim Thomas became an exception when he declined to accompany the 2011 Cup champion Boston Bruins to the White House. In a statement he said his refusal was not related to Obama, a Democrat, occupying the White House, “as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. … I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.”
Only one NHL player, J.T. Brown, is known to have followed the lead of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in silently protesting racial inequality. While playing for Tampa Bay early this season, Brown raised his right fist in the air during the national anthem while standing at the bench, and the club issued a statement saying, “We respect our players and individual choices they may make on social and political issues.” Brown, one of about 35 black players in the NHL this season, was traded to the Ducks.
The Penguins visited the White House after they won the Cup in 2017 for the second consecutive season and issued a press release stating their acceptance was based on respect for “the institution of the Office of the President and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House.” Team captain Sidney Crosby added, “It’s not about politics, that’s for sure,” but he took some criticism for going.
For those who link politics to the likelihood of getting a White House invitation there’s this: Penguins owner Ron Burkle, once a backer of President Clinton, did not financially support Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. According to campaignmoney.com, Burkle contributed to political action committees that backed Republicans John Kasich and Marco Rubio. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has given money to Republican politicians but in the 2016 election hosted a fundraiser for Clinton. Standout Washington scorer Alex Ovechkin is a supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, for whatever that means.
Until now, hockey has largely avoided controversy over the intersection of sports and politics. The spotlight will swing its way when, or if, the Cup winner is invited to the White House. Will players go?
“There’s no point in me answering that now. We’ll address that when we win,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said.