Red jerseys bearing the number eight are de rigueur when its game day for the Washington Capitals around the Verizon Center.
The jerseys are everywhere. At the Green Turtle sports bar inside the arena. Up the block at Matchbox. Around the corner at Clyde’s. Down the street at the Penn Quarter Sports Tavern.
When the Capitals play at home, fans don the number eight jerseys as an homage to their captain, Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin is a two-time NHL Most Valuable Player whose moniker is “The Great Eight.”
The Capitals had a home game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.
At 7 pm.
But around 12:30 pm, only a single red jersey festooned with the numeral eight could be found in the Verizon Center. And an unfamiliar name was scripted above the eight: Buschon.
Who was this fraud? Isn’t it sacrilege in Washington to emblazon a hockey jersey with the number eight with any name besides Ovechkin? Buschon? Had the Capitals dealt their captain in exchange for some Francophone from Quebec?
Try southern Indiana, not Quebec. And the jersey belonged to Rep. Larry Buschon (R-IN) who represents Indiana’s Eighth Congressional District – on hand for the fourth annual Congressional Hockey Challenge. It’s a charity hockey game that pits a team of lobbyists against a squad of lawmakers and Congressional staff. The match raises money for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the Fort Dupont Ice Arena, the only public indoor ice rink in the District of Columbia.
“I didn’t even know that was (Ovechkin’s) number,” said a slightly flustered Buschon. “Eight’s just my district.”
But alas, Buschon wouldn’t get to set skate Sunday afternoon. He’s on long-term injured reserve. The Congressman tore his left ACL in practice three weeks ago and has surgery scheduled this week.
“I was trying to do a hockey stop,” said the 49-year-old Buschon who’s only played the game for ten years. “I would say I’m an advanced beginner.”
That’s nothing. Gordie Howe scored 34 goals for the old New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association when he was 49. Howe played regularly until he was 52. So Buschon could still have a prosperous career ahead of him once he recovers.
If Buschon can’t quite match the 23-time all-star Howe, he could also look to 68-year-old Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), the oldest player on the ice Sunday afternoon.
Kerry sported red, white and blue gloves which look as though they were lifted from the dressing room of the Rochester Americans when he spoke to reporters before the game.
“I’m not ready to hang it up,” said Kerry. “I’ve got two artificial hips. (Hockey’s) the best exercise in the world.”
Buschon’s entire family plays hockey. But he says learning the game is different than taking up other forms of recreation.
“Unlike other sports, you have to be able to skate first,” Buschon said.
Apparently he hasn’t seen the Columbus Blue Jackets this season.
Hockey has played a central role in the lives of many of the Congressional aides and lawmakers who took part in the game.
Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY) grew up playing at what used to be called the Cazenovia Park hockey rink in south Buffalo.
“It was an open-air rink, so it was only open two months out of the year,” Higgins said. “So that means you only got to play maybe eight or ten times a year.”
Higgins said they installed a roof on the rink in 1986, meaning players could practice year round.
“And then the next generation came along, and look what happened to them,” Higgins said.
That “next generation” included Chicago Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane. Kane was the NHL’s number one pick in 2007 and scored the winning goal in the Stanley Cup Finals a few years ago. Former Caps draft pick and current San Jose Shark Tim Kennedy also played there along with Peter Ratchuk, who had brief stints with the Florida Panthers.
“See, if I could have played year round, I’d be in the NHL,” quipped Higgins, who used to skate at Cazenovia with Kane’s and Kennedy’s fathers.
One player who flirted with the NHL is freshman Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA). Not as a player, but as an official. Meehan worked a few preseason NHL games more than 30 years ago. He also officiated games in the old Eastern Hockey League.
“Oh, there was never any violence there,” Meehan smirked.
Meehan recalls his first game between the Erie Blades and the Baltimore Clippers. That’s when he noticed two wingers jostling behind him.
“Three seconds later, both benches emptied,” Meehan said. “So after that, I thought (officiating) was going to be a piece of cake.”
A dark cloud now shrouds the NHL about the specter of fighting. New York Rangers’ enforcer Derek Boogaard was found to have a degenerative brain condition after his death last year from an overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. Vancouver Canucks pugilist Rick Rypien committed suicide a few months after Boogaard died. But as a former official, Meehan doesn’t think hockey should ban fighting.
“It’s part of the fabric,” Meehan said. “It keeps the violence away from the star players.”
However, Meehan says there’s a few things Capitol Hill could learn from hockey.
“I wish I had my whistle,” Meehan said. “And they should have a penalty box in Congress.”
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) is a die-hard Chicago Blackhawks fan. The Illinois Democrat says as soon as he learned that Meehan was an official he told his Pennsylvania colleague he needed glasses.
“And he gave me a ten-minute misconduct,” Quigley said.
Perhaps the Congressional squad could have used some of Meehan’s discipline last year. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) had been the lawmakers’ netminder in 2011. But Weiner resigned last summer after, shall we say, “playing the puck outside the trapezoid.” In retrospect, Weiner’s Twitter scandal has the potential to bring an entirely different meaning to the lexicon of goalies. Somehow goaltending argots like, “squeeze the pillows” and “in the crease” take on a life of their own when considering the erstwhile Congressional netminder.
For the 2012 game, the Congressional team tapped Steve Hedger, an aide to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to play in goal. Hedger donned #30, just like Tomas Voukon, the Capitals goalie. And Hedger secured a win for the Congressional squad as they topped the K Street clan, 5-3.
The game took on many of the trappings of an NHL contest on the Verizon Center ice. Several hundred fans sat behind the benches in the lower seating bowl. One observer remarked that the Congressional hockey crowd was reminiscent of the Capitals’ contest Friday night. Many of the Capitals’ faithful left during the second intermission as the New Jersey Devils shellacked the home team 5-0.
The scoreboard and clock above the ice ran just like at a regular NHL game. They played the old “Hockey Night in Canada” theme before the puck drop. The sound system even blasted Iron Maiden’s “The Wicker Man” after goals just like when the Capitals score (Whoa oh-oh-oh!). But the only time anyone’s heard the “The Wicker Man” around the Verizon Center recently was during the charity game. Philadelphia blanked the Caps 1-0 Sunday night, meaning Washington hasn’t scored in two consecutive games.
The game had other similarities, too.
In the first period, the refs penalized Pat Meehan for hooking.
“Cover the man!” Meehan shouted at his teammates from the penalty box. “Stop chasing the puck!’
Someone commented that Meehan’s admonitions sounded a lot like the Capitals’ coaching staff when Washington’s been on the penalty kill of late.
Predictably, a few people booed when the PA announcer introduced the lobbyist team.
The Congressional squad built a healthy 4-0 lead going into the third period, before yielding a shorthanded goal and a power play tally to the lobbyists.
The Lawmakers exploded for two goals in less than two minutes midway through the first period. John Goodwin, Chief of Staff to Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) got things started with one goal followed moments later by a score from Quigley.
Gerrit Lansing, communications adviser to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), also scored for the Congress team when he slid the puck past the Lobbyist goalie Brian Regan just before the first intermission.
Former New Hampshire GOP party official Tory Mazzola netted a nifty goal halfway through the second period to make it 4-0. Mazzola scored on a breakaway thanks to some tape-to-tape passing from Granite State colleague John Billings, an aide to Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH) and Joel Brubaker, Chief of Staff to Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).
But the lobbyists tightened the game in the third. Attorney Ian Bennitt of Ball Janik scored a powerplay goal to dent the scoresheet, making it 4-1. Brubaker of the Congress squad scored to make it 5-1. But in the game’s closing moments, Andrew Mills of Capital Management Initiatives rallied with both a shorthanded goal and a power play goal to make the score 5-3.
And there were a few moments of rough stuff.
Officials dispatched Bennitt to the penalty box for cross-checking Mike Quigley in the first period. The diminutive Quigley then retaliated, shoving both Bennitt and Marty Depoy of the Bockorny Group. But the officials didn’t send Quigley off.
In the third period, John Goodwin and Chris Coleman of the National Confectioners Association collided with each other into the dasher boards. Both received matching minors for roughing. No surprise there. Like former NHL pest Sean Avery, Goodwin always seems to be in the middle of the action. In fact, he promoted Sunday’s contest by emailing friends a picture of himself involved in an altercation at last year’s game.
Essayist Paul Gallico once described hockey as “a fast body-contact game played by men with clubs in their hands and knives laced to their feet.”
That’s similar to the cut-throat politics played in Washington. And those worlds collided with the force of a Zdeno Chara open ice hit at the Verizon Center Sunday afternoon.
But politics was never far off. Before the game, a reporter asked Larry Buschon a question about restlessness in the electorate and concerns about the economy and jobs.
“They want Congress to move the ball down the field,” Buschon.
Or perhaps in this case, at least move the puck out of their own zone.