Street Hockey Enjoys a Foothold in the Shadow of the White House

Street hockey enjoys a foothold in the shadow of the White House as strangers discover camaraderie with pickup games.
By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Walking through Lafayette Park toward the White House, it's hard to identify some of the sounds that emerge from the usual serenade of birds, squirrels and idling police cars until you've rounded a corner of Blair House and can see their origin first-hand. The rough scrape of hockey sticks on weather-worn granite, the hollow crack of a hard plastic ball bouncing off the street, the continuous chatter that echoes off the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

For roughly 14 years, a group of relative strangers has met to play street hockey here -- on the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, surrounded by manicured trees and box hedges and just a few yards away from the most recognizable address and home in the United States. The gathering of 20-somethings and middle-aged family men includes electricians, lobbyists, software developers, lawyers and physical therapists. Most don't know the other players' full -- or sometimes real -- names.

Those kind of details aren't terribly important in the style of street hockey played here. Players toss their sticks in a pile on the street, then divvy them up randomly to pick teams. They set up half-size, pop-up nets and play five-on-five roller hockey, goaltender included, where the winners stay on. Everyone rotates a turn in goal, and padding and helmets are up to the discretion of each individual. But to help keep themselves and bystanders safe, the players enforce their own rules -- no slap shots and no checking -- and keep an eye out for Segways, bicyclists and the occasional motorcade.

The juxtaposition of such free-flowing chaos with the backdrop of the White House is not lost on the players or those passing by. Tourists almost always stop to watch, pulling out digital cameras and handheld video recorders to document the action.

"It's kind of funny. We're among all these historical, important buildings, and people are always asking questions, taking pictures and video of us, of all things," said Jim Purther, 38, of Washington, during a game late last month. Purther has helped organize the game for the past three years.

"I understand it, though," Purther continued. "This is the last place I ever thought a game would be going on."

The closing of Pennsylvania Avenue to vehicular traffic between Lafayette Park and the White House in the spring of 1995 unintentionally created the perfect central location for a pickup game just as the popularity of street hockey was reaching an apex. It wasn't uncommon for 30 to 40 people to flock to the street then, causing several games to sprout up on the street at once. Participation has fluctuated over the years, but by most accounts, numbers are back on the upswing.

They play year-round, as long as the street is dry. This summer, usually 15 to 20 men show up for games that begin at noon on Saturdays and Sundays, and around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. Women have played in the past, but there aren't any in the current group.

Earlier this decade, a "White House Hockey" Google group was created to help keep track of everyone's e-mail addresses and make the group more tech-savvy. Purther, who has shepherded the page's e-mail for three years, posts to the group message board every week about potential attendance to ensure that there will be enough players. He also sends out last-minute weather cancellations.

The game is open to anyone, so long as you can hold your own on a pair of inline skates and can take your share of ribbing. For some, it is a welcome diversion in their overscheduled week. For others, it's a way to remind themselves why they're not professional athletes.

"We all need a place where we can get away a little bit, where boys can be boys," said Peter Kerr, 47, of Alexandria. Kerr grew up outside of Montreal, earning him the nickname "Canadian Peter" from other players. "I have twin boys, but coming here keeps me young. It keeps you thinking in different ways, and it's just the right level of competition and commitment to keep coming back."

While people do find the game through the Google page, the largest influx of new players stems from word of mouth and pure serendipity. Tom Costello, 25, stumbled across the game walking downtown one day and asked when they played. Craig Micon, 23, had been looking for a game since moving to the District earlier this year.

"This game is perfect," Micon said. "Just show up and play, no questions asked. It is definitely more competitive than I first expected. Everyone out here really can hold their own. It's a little humbling when I'm the one getting winded first and I look at all the older guys still going."

There is a cordial relationship between the hockey players and the numerous police forces that patrol the public street and surrounding area. Every few months, guards emerge from their station to return a collection of fluorescent balls, and some of the officers are so familiar with the games that when the street was closed to pedestrians during the 2008 World Bank protests, those who arrived toting hockey equipment were allowed to pass through and play.

Players simply make sure to follow any instructions from police or the Secret Service, because they believe there is extra onus to coexist peacefully.

"Years ago, two guys got into a bit of a fight, and [the officers] told us all to be adults," said Eric Greenwald, 40. "That we couldn't set a bad example in front of the little kids and tourists, not here. The way most of us see it is if the Secret Service and everyone are nice enough to let us play here, we have the responsibility to be good citizens."

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