On Monday—a curiously long time after winning the Stanley Cup, given that the team in question didn’t need to wait for a road trip to Washington—the Capitals visited the White House. More notable was who didn’t make the trip.
Not there was Devante Smith-Pelly, who’s currently in the AHL but would have been invited because the Caps invited everyone who was on last spring’s championship roster, including those now playing for other teams. One of two black players on that roster (the other was Madison Bowey, now with Detroit, who also did not make the trip), Smith-Pelly made his feelings quite clear before the Capitals even won the Cup last June. During the Finals, Smith-Pelly said of Donald Trump, “The things that he spews are straight-up racist and sexist. 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. [A White House visit] hasn’t come up here, but I think I already have my mind made up.”
Not there was Brett Connolly, who said he was declining to visit the President because he wanted to support his friend, Smith-Pelly. “It’s about what’s right and wrong,” Connolly explained.
Not there was goalie Braden Holtby, who with his wife has been active in LGBTQ causes. Holtby did not mention Trump by name when announcing his decision, but was crystal-clear. “My family and myself, we believe in a world where humans are treated with respect regardless of your stature, what you’re born into,” he said. “You’re asked to choose what side you’re on, and I think it’s pretty clear what side I’m on.”
But many other Caps players did make the trip.
Rather than a full ceremony, the team opted for a relatively low-key visit. Accompanied by owner Ted Leonsis and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, they took a 45-minute tour of the White House without media present, before popping into the oval office to present Trump with a No. 45 Caps jersey and a gold stick engraved with his name.
Trump was extremely Trump. From the Washington Post:
During Monday afternoon’s lighthearted ceremony, Trump marveled at the size of Russian captain Alex Ovechkin’s hands and then listed off his many career accomplishments, adding that his daughter Ivanka is “a friend and she’s a tremendous fan.” He singled out team owner Ted Leonsis — “a man that’s been a great success over his lifetime,” Trump said — American defenseman John Carlson’s 20 points in the playoffs and center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s four-assist game in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, though he struggled with the pronunciation of Kuznetsov’s name.
At Trump’s prompting, Alex Ovechkin gave a brief speech:
“There’s a lot of guys that share a lot of the same values that [Holtby] does,” veteran Brooks Orpik told reporters a few days ago, “but they’re going to the White House and it’s not an endorsement of whoever’s in the office.” It’s understandable that some players would have been torn. When you’re a young athlete, you dream of that White House visit, but because it’s so far off, your dream probably doesn’t include a specific president. The historic building, the tour, the invitation, are all signifiers of the thing that matters: the championship. Most pro athletes never get that chance. Of those that do, most only get the one chance. I think it is possible for some of them to separate the man from the honor, especially because most hockey players aren’t American, and many white athletes in general are able to almost-completely ignore politics in their daily lives. So it’s possible for me to understand why some players went, while admiring those that didn’t.
Orpik says it won’t be a bone of contention in the dressing room. “We’re human beings,” he said, “and people share different opinions and different political views. It’s no different than anybody else. People that are friends vote for different people.”
Still, at no point was it possible to forget just who was president on Monday. No other president would have wished a hockey team success by telling them, “good luck. We’re going to be watching. Everyone, get the same number of goals.”