What the Capitals and the NHL Can Teach Washington
As Lee Greenwood stepped to the stage for the 2nd intermission of this year’s Winter Classic, stadium announcer Wes Johnson, working from a pre-approved script, introduced him as one of America’s most beloved musicians. Greenwood took center stage and segued into the song he’s been singing since 1984, “God Bless the U.S.A.”
Some in the audience loved it, standing and saluting to no-one in particular. Others made a conspicuous, eye-rolling show, hopping up to buy yet another hot dog they may not have even wanted.
Loving tribute to American values and traditions, or cheap display of faux-patriotism? The answer depends largely on where in our culture you stand.
This reporter actually saw almost the same scene play out three years earlier. In 2012, on the first night of the GOP national convention in Tampa, I was covering a Democratic watch party near the convention center. Someone at the Times Forum, who I was told was the winner of a TV talent show, began to sing Greenwood’s anthem, captured by the C-SPAN cameras.
Grey-haired Republican delegates in the hall ate it up; hipster Democratic loyalists in the bar nearly threw up.
Standing in Nats Park Thursday, watching this political Rorschach test play out again, I saw that I was witnessing one institution – the NHL – jostling up against the city governed by a very different institution – politics. In short, the Capitals and the Capitol.
And it struck me that while one of these Washingtons is working to build up family, achievement, and society, the other Washington seems to be doing its damndest to pull it all down.
Competitors and Haters
Hating on Washington goes back at least as far as 1814 and the burning of the first Capitol building by the British; maybe even further. And DC-based journalists, as a rule, raise complaining about DC to a refined pitch – witness the latest success of the New York Times‘ Mark Leibovich, an observer keen enough to admit his complaints about Washington form the basis of his pay while here.
It may seem flip comparing a Winter Classic game to a national political convention, but there are some similarities. There’s clearly a home ‘team’, and a much smaller ‘opponent’ contingent; media flood into town to set up electronic camps and pillage buffets; and there’s no shortage of A-list stars that everyone else wants to meet. Beyond that, the similarities end; it’s the differences that really tell the story.
At a hockey game, fans cheer their team to win. Increasingly at conventions, and I’ve covered nine of them so far, delegates and politicians want the other team to lose. In the locker room, before and after the match, players speak respectfully of the other side, maybe with a small side of chirp. At conventions, partisans can’t say enough bad things about their opponents to fill the yawning maw of cable TV. And at game’s end, hockey players, coaches and fans turn to the next game, and the next, and the next after that, working to build success in the future. Even before election results come in, the losing side is already planning how to burn down the victor.
Maybe, in part, it’s because most players, coaches and staff know there’s little permanent in hockey. One day you’re winning a Cup with the Blackhawks; the next you’re scoring the GWG on them in the Classic. Even the Homer-iest McFanBoy knows deep down that hatred of a rival isn’t truly hate. Extreme dislike, perhaps, but not hate. Name me one politician on the national stage who isn’t behaving as if the other team is out to destroy America, let alone saying it. Crickets.
Hockey Hope and Glory
It can be easy for any of us to lose heart; to simply say they’re all crooks and the fix is in and there’s nothing to be done about it anyway. Giving up, basically. Wasn’t that the clear message from the latest Gallup study released Friday?
I know plenty of people who say they have given up on politics and Washington; that they’ve lost faith not just in the institutions of self-governance, but almost on the American people at large. And then I think: there’s no quitting in hockey.
Grit and gut are celebrated in the Capitals culture; giving up is not. When you’re down, you come together as a team and step it up right to the end…and if even that doesn’t work, you put it behind and move forward in the future to do better. I don’t think you could find a player who hasn’t at some time, in a post-game interview, spoken of how they gutted it out for their team, for the fans, or to honor the ceaseless support of family and friends from the time they first laced up skates.
Walking throughout Nats Parks New Years Day during the Classic, I realized our Capitol culture could learn a lot from Capitals culture. Here were partisans on both sides, proudly sporting their sides’ colors, seated one next to the other – and enjoying the competition. While there may have been a few foul incidents, there was no hatred on display anywhere. Instead, what we all saw was an amazing game, some breath-taking play, and a crowd of 42,000 of your fellow Americans coming together to celebrate and enjoy a beautiful game.
Washington could learn a thing or two from Washington.