The Capitals will be the first Washington professional team to be honored at the White House since D.C. United in 1997. Visiting the White House has long been a tradition for many championship college and professional teams, but it has been mixed with some controversy during Trump’s presidency. In the week after they won the Stanley Cup, most Capitals players said they would visit the White House. Russian captain Alex Ovechkin confirmed that he will attend after the team’s 4-1 win at the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night.
“We just found out today, so I don’t know what to say," he said. “I’m just excited. It’s nice.”
Said Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom: “It will be fun. It’s exciting, I think, and every time you get an invitation from the president and being at the White House, it’s going to be a great experience. ... I feel like it’s always up to whoever wants to go, but we got the invitation, and it’s been a tradition, I think, for many years. We’re not going to mix politics with sports. It’s because we won last year; that’s why we’re there. Yeah, it’ll be a cool experience, I think.”
Forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who is black and Canadian, previously said he would not want to be part of a White House ceremony because “the things that [Trump] spews are straight-up racist and sexist,” he told Canada’s Postmedia.
Smith-Pelly was waived in February and sent down to the American Hockey League in a salary cap-clearing move so he is no longer with the Capitals, but all members of the 2018 team are invited and will have the option to attend or decline. Players and coaches new to the team this season will not be part of the visit.
Forward Brett Connolly joined Smith-Pelly last year in saying he would also skip a White House visit, and he stood by that decision when asked Tuesday night, referencing his support for Smith-Pelly.
“I respectfully decline,” said Connolly, who is Canadian. “That’s all I’ll say about it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It’s obviously a big deal, and it gains a lot of attention. I’ve been in full support of an old teammate that I’m really good friends with who I agreed with and a guy who will be back here, I’m sure, at the end of the year. That’s all I’ll say.”
Trump canceled the 2018 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles’ visit to the White House after some players said they would skip the ceremony to protest the president and his rhetoric. When the Golden State Warriors won the 2017 NBA championship, multiple players, including superstar guard Stephen Curry, said they were not in favor of a visit to the White House. They were later disinvited by Trump. The Warriors won another title last year and, rather than visit the White House during their trip to Washington in late January, they met with former president Barack Obama. The team visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture during its trip to Washington the previous February.
The Pittsburgh Penguins visited the White House after both their 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup wins. In 2012, then-Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, an American, skipped the team’s White House ceremony, citing his political and ideological differences with the Obama administration. The Capitals went down to the wire with this visit, discussing dates earlier in the season to no avail because of scheduling conflicts.
Clemson, winner of the College Football Playoff, and North Dakota State, seven-time winner of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, are the most recent teams to visit the White House, and both were served a fast-food spread.
“It’s another chance to recognize the special run that we had last year," Capitals forward Tom Wilson said Tuesday. “Anytime the group gets together and gets to see the Cup and be around it, it is awesome. We’ll take it in stride and see where it goes here and look forward to celebrating that one whenever we can.”
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