President Trump sat behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, a red Washington Capitals jersey, No. 45, splayed before him and the Stanley Cup to his right. Players, coaches and staff members from the team’s 2017-18 championship season stood behind him, guests at the White House about 10 months after the Capitals first hoisted the chalice and roughly two weeks before the 2019 playoffs start and they try to win it again.
“I just want to wish you a lot of luck,” Trump told the team. “In Washington that’s all that they want to talk about. They don’t want to talk about anything else. I can’t get the subject on to anything else, so you’ve got to win quickly because we’ve got to get back to work. But I think you’re going to do really fantastically well.”
The Capitals’ 45-minute tour of the White House was private with no official ceremony before pool reporters were invited to witness the team’s meeting with Trump in the Oval Office. Washington’s low-key final celebration with the Stanley Cup was in stark contrast to its first in the District, when players drunkenly paraded the Cup around Georgetown. The visit also came a day after Attorney General William P. Barr released a summary of the findings from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation that found no evidence Trump’s campaign “conspired or coordinated” with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election but reached no conclusion as to whether Trump obstructed justice.
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. In addition to the jersey, the team gifted Trump a gold hockey stick engraved with the president’s name.
After reporters left, Trump continued to spend time with the team, passing out pens and M&M candies, and posed for individual pictures with players and staff. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was also in attendance.
“Thank you very much for having us,” a clean-shaven Ovechkin told Trump in the Oval Office. “It’s huge honor for us to be here and meet you personally. We’re going to try to do it again. We have same team, experienced team, very good group of guys, and we’re going to try to do it again.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby and forwards Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly, who are all Canadian, were the only players who announced they would not visit the White House with their teammates. Holtby said he has always believed “the team sticks together,” but this issue is one that “you’re asked to choose what side you’re on."
The Capitals gave players, coaches and staff from their Stanley Cup-winning team the option to participate. Connolly cited his support for Smith-Pelly, who said in June that “the things that [Trump] spews are straight-up racist and sexist,” and Holtby explained his reasoning as wanting to stick to his values. “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 Friday.
The Capitals were the first Washington team to be exclusively honored since the Redskins in 1992, and there was little fanfare for what is intended to be the highest public honor for a team. The organization declined requests to make players, coaches or staff available to reporters after the visit. The Capitals had announced previously that there was no planned media access, but then the White House decided to open the Oval Office to pool reporters for a photo opportunity around 3 p.m.
The private nature of the event was seen as surprising, given the public displays for past championship teams at the White House. But after some teams from the NFL and NBA did not visit the White House to celebrate their titles during Trump’s presidency, what had become a customary event took on political overtones.
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, and the Golden State Warriors did not visit the White House after their 2017 or 2018 NBA titles.
Players expected backlash from some fans for the visit, but the Capitals have vowed that they won’t let an event designed to honor their championship divide them as they try to win another when the playoffs start next month.
“People try to spin it that way. I think it’s irresponsible, to be honest with you," American defenseman Brooks Orpik said Saturday. "If someone wants to come and talk to anybody in here about their political views and their values and how they treat people, then I think anybody’s willing to talk to people about that. Whether you go to the White House to celebrate a championship I don’t think says anything about your values or your character. There’s plenty of guys, myself included, that share a lot of the same values as Braden and there’s some guys that are going.”
Including Orpik, the Capitals had six American players appear in the postseason last year. All of them participated in Monday’s visit, along with Coach Todd Reirden, who was born in Illinois. Former coaches and players who were on the Stanley Cup-winning team were also invited, but none attended because of scheduling conflicts so late in the season.
Players declining a White House visit isn’t unprecedented in hockey. 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 Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017, visited the White House after both of their titles. Clemson, winner of the College Football Playoff, and North Dakota State, seven-time winner of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, both visited the White House this year, and both were served a fast-food spread. No food was served during the Capitals’ visit.
Now the Capitals will attempt to set up another visit by way of a second consecutive Stanley Cup. Trump encouraged them in that effort with his remarks Monday.
“I think you’re going to be successful," he said. "Very proud of you guys. Good luck. We’re going to be watching. Everyone, get the same number of goals.”
David Nakamura contributed to this report.