Sports teams winning major championship games and then getting invited to the White House used to be an exciting fete, regardless of one’s political views. When Donald Trump became President, that changed. The time-old tradition, which dates back to 1865, when President Andrew Johnson invited the Washington Senators and Brooklyn Atlantics to the White House, has since drastically shifted from being a fun-filled day with photo-ops. Now, whether or not an athlete accepts an invite to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue speaks volumes of their personal principals, and opinion of the current administration.
After the Washington Capitals brought home the 2018 Stanley Cup to D.C. for the first time in franchise history, ending the team’s 44-year drought and the city’s 26-year run of never winning a major championship, they were instantly local heroes.
Their celebration famously went on for weeks, but lingering on in the back of everyone’s mind, if the team would soon make the short journey, it’s a 20 minute walk, from the Capital One Arena in Koreatown to The White House.
A few players didn’t need time to mull it over. Winger Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored six goals in the post-season, a Canadian, who was one of two black players on the team said, “The things that he spews are straight-up racist and sexist. Some of the things he’s said are pretty gross… It hasn’t come up here, but I think I already have my mind made up.”
As for the other players on the team, “They can do whatever they want,” Smith-Pelly answered. “When I said what I said, no one in the room said, ‘Hey, maybe you should do this or maybe you should do that.’ Everyone can do whatever they want. I will still love Ovi if he goes, and the other guys if they go.”
And Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin is definitely going. After Washington won he said,”I can’t wait to go. I’ve never been there. I want to take pictures around it. It will be fun.” A lot of eyes will be on Washington Capital’s MVP, who also has a good relationship with Vladimir Putin, and posts photos with the Russian leader on Instagram.
“I just support my president and just support my country because I’m from there, and you know, if people from U.S. came to Russia, they care about what happen in the U.S.,” Ovechkin said. “So, I care about what happening in Russia because it’s my home and it’s where I’m from.”
Fellow Russians Dmitri Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov agree with Ovi. “Yeah, it is cool for sure,” said Kuznetsov. “Why you should not go, right? Like, we can see president. That is a huge privilege, even if it is not the president of my country, but still for me, it is a big privilege.”
Forward Brett Connolly, however, will not be attending. After the Caps 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on March 19 he said, [I] respectfully, decline. That’s all I will say about it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It’s obviously a big deal and gains a lot of attention, but I have been in full support of an old teammate that I am really good friends with and I agreed with.” The former teammate he’s referring to is Smith Pelly, who currently plays in the minor leagues.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik, who visited The White House back in 2009 as a Pittsburgh Penguin, admits that it’s a touchy subject for the entire team.
“It’s just kind of the way things are going these days, Orpik said. “If you don’t have the 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. It’s a really cool experience. I mean, you go there for three or four hours. For me, it’s a really cool celebration with your team celebrating a championship.”
As for Canadian goaltender Braden Holtby, who made “the save” in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, he won’t be going. On March 22, he told a Washington Post reporter the he “respectfully declined” because it was important for him to stick to his values and that it wasn’t a super tough decision. Holtby never saw himself going in the first place.
Team owner Ted Leonsis, who hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign at his home in Potomac, Maryland said on WTOP’s “Ask the Owner,” “It’s our players and coaching staff that will decide and whatever they decide, I think that the team would support that,” and former coach, Barry Trotz had the same non-committal answer.
The current New York Islanders coach told The Washington Post, “I have my opinion on that which is part of the process of being a championship team, and other people have different opinions, so I respect both. I haven’t talked to the guys one way or the other. We haven’t had any official team meetings, but I respect both sides, really I do. Whatever the group decides, we will do it. I don’t know if it will be a full group, a half group, or no group, I have no idea. I think most guys have the tradition part down.”
While not every player has spoken out, the rest of the Washington Capitals’ players who have commented on whether they are or aren’t going to the White House on Monday, March 25, or as of press time, remain undecided, are listed below:
WILL GO: Swedish player Nicklaus Backstrom. “I think the building is pretty cool. I mean, I’m not going to get into this discussion that a lot of other athletes are talking about. I think the building is pretty cool, and it’s an honor if the president invites you, I think.”
WILL GO: American T.J. Oshie. “I think going to the White House, whether people are very political or whether you like Trump or not, just kind of in my opinion, it stands for so much more than that. It is something people have been doing for a long time with so many different presidents that you know I think it would be cool for us to go there. Any excuse to have the Cup with you, I think at least for me, I want to take advantage of it.”
WILL GO: Canadian player Tom Wilson. “My parents told me when I go to the U.S., don’t talk politics because you will get in trouble. But the White House is an amazing historical place, and so much cool history has happened there. I think it’s unfair to judge what is happening on the moment, I always reflect. So much has gone into that place I think it would pretty cool to go there, no matter what is happening, and check it out.”
WIL GO: Canadian Jay Beagle. “I’m in!”
WILL GO: Danish player Lars Eller. “I expect to go.”
WILL GO: Czech player Michal Kempny. “I am going to go there. I want to see it, inside.”
UNDECIDED: Czech player Jakub Vrana. “Honestly, there is other guys who decide this. I was just kind of rolling with the group. Wherever we go, we go, I go.”
UNDECIDED: American Matt Niskanin. “I’m an athlete, not a political pundit. I don’t believe these things should be mixed. Politics aside, the White House is a cool building, the presidency is a pretty cool thing. I never really understood why sports and that stuff gets mixed together but I guess it’s kind of a cool thing.”
UNDECIDED: Canadian Alex Chiasson. “I think I’m not huge into politics and obviously there are things that are said and all that. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and I haven’t really put any thought into that.”