Defending Tim Thomas from trite 'tradition' | Hockey | CBC Sports

NHLDefending Tim Thomas from trite 'tradition'

Posted: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 | 07:53 AM

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By the time the Chicago Blackhawks ended up at the White House to commemorate their 2010 championship, they were teetering on the edge of being eliminated from the subsequent postseason. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press) By the time the Chicago Blackhawks ended up at the White House to commemorate their 2010 championship, they were teetering on the edge of being eliminated from the subsequent postseason. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

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To suggest that Tim Thomas should have attended a White House "tradition" that has only been going on for 20 years, and is increasingly trite and laughable, is to suggest that it's groupthink or the highway, writes Chris Iorfida.

Oh how we've often laughed as a hockey nation recounting the famous tales of Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings at the White House.
Who could forget Howe using sharpening his elbows and giving both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower a good wallop as Detroit won four championships in the 1950s?
Howe was denied the Presidential Hat Trick as Detroit twice fell short of the coveted right to visit John F. Kennedy (along with that Stanley trophy), losing in the 1961 and 1963 finals.
Lyndon Johnson, meanwhile, backslapped and arm-twisted his way through ceremonies involving the  Montreal Canadiens. He marveled at the resemblance of Toe Blake to his good bud Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, and his rough-around-the-edges Texas charm won over players, including favourites John Belivoo and Jack Lapeareyur.
And how about the time Phil Esposito tripped on the carpet walking about to greet Richard Nixon with a bouquet? The 37th U.S. President regarded the ceremonial stick the Boston Bruins gave him like a foreign object, but after he was helicoptered out of town in disgrace, he began to use it as a long putter on the three-hole golf course on his San Clemente estate.
Sports teams can inspire a country, this we know to be true in part from the stirring speech new president Ronald Reagan gave to honour the New York Islanders in 1981, who helped the United States heal again amid economic hard times, Cold War gloom and the recently ended Iranian hostage crisis.
Reagan also took note of one particular player on the team, saying, "Hey Kennie Morrow, congratulations also on that little Lake Placid tournament a few months back in which you and your teammates beat Russia then Finland for the top ribbon. Well done, young man!"
None of these things happened, of course, but you might not know it from the preposterous reaction by the hockey punditry class on Mount Twitter to the revelation that star goalie Tim Thomas opted not to join his fellow Boston Bruins when they were feted at the White House by President Barack Obama.
Folks, the practice of NHL championship teams (heck, championship sports teams in general) visiting the White House is not a time immemorial, sanctified tradition. There is no benediction, there are no swords involved.

It is in fact more often a perfunctory, trite occasion, and only an annual "tradition", as it were, in recent times. While sports team visits to the White House date back over a century, World Series champions were only annually invited starting with the Reagan administration, according to a 2010 New York Times article.

Annual visits for hockey champs only followed later, although Reagan did host an NHL contingent of present and past all-stars in 1982, where he joked about "my mother taking me by the hand" early in life to see Howe play.

Whatever charms the ceremonies once had have given way to an almost desperate need for the White House to ensure the president - no matter his name or party - can burnish his sports bona fides.

By the way, had Hilary won in '08 could you see her holding court at these things? Don't you think they'd have been pawned off to the Veep? Not because she's a woman, but just because it seems so un-Hilary. It's certainly hard to picture Newt and a hockey team engaged in bonhomie.

There's no guarantee they will continue in perpetuity.

And they don't even pretend to hold these anytime close to the season anymore.

When the 1991 Penguins swung by, it was a few weeks after their win. The ceremony involving the Blackhawks a couple years back was held nearly 10 months later; they were just days away from nearly crashing out of contention for that year's tournament!

Free agency and increasing player movement have added another layer of ridiculousness to the proceedings.

Many people thought the spectacle of Tomas Kaberle being on a Stanley Cup team was ridiculous enough. How about the spectacle of him returning seven months later to take part in the ceremony after being cut loose by both the Bruins and the Hurricanes, and while playing for Boston's most hated rival, no less.

As Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette has pointed out, Hal Gill didn't attend Pittsburgh's ceremony because it coincided with a golf tournament being held by his subsequent team, the Canadiens.
Thomas isn't even the most high profile athlete to not show up this month. Albert Pujols didn't join his (now former) St. Louis Cardinals teammates last week. The baseball world managed to survive, and none of the sport's beat writers were hospitalized for conniption.
James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers also declined a few years back because ... I won't even try to decipher anything that man says.

As far as the politics, Thomas has the right to an individual decision, has the right to be wrong even.

It wasn't an enlistment into service and he has no duty to obey the president, even if his words sounded a little too discomfitingly like some of the ramblings of a guy from the exact same Michigan community, convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols.

The reaction was more of the same boring old tropes that work day in and day out on the hockey beat. Thomas had done a "selfish" thing and had "taken away from his team's big day", one that could have repercussions down the line for team unity. One sports network even mentioned the succession plan involving Thomas and backup Tuukka Rask. Why?

This wasn't a Scottie Pippen moment of in-game abandonment. There was no rink set up out back for the first ever Rose Garden Classic. In a photo op and meet and greet, explain how Daniel Paille's enjoyment of the day is diminished by Thomas's absence?

Most dangerously, the suggestion implies that the choice was to march lockstep into team groupthink or to ... well, actually, that's basically what many hockey writers were suggesting.

In a sport that among the four team sports in North America probably features on the whole, the blandest interviewees and the most conformity-minded athletes, we time and again slam the ones who poke their necks out to do or say something the least bit provocative. Andrew Ference, PK Subban, Ilya Bryzgalov - whatever you think of them - certainly get an inordinate amount of attention from the chattering classes for colouring outside the lines.
Again, these ceremonies didn't take place in earnest until the last generation or so. Do you really want to go down the path of wondering whether your hero Bobby Orr's political views match your own? You think agitator Ted Lindsay would have been a smiling idiot over the prospect of a White House visit?

There isn't even a guarantee that a Canadian team would be invited to one of these things. It's been so long, I can't remember, and at the rate it's going, it could be moot.

To close, it should be pointed out that vice president Joseph Biden was in California around the time of Monday's ceremony being interviewed on a number of topics on Ryan Seacrest's radio show (Yeah, I don't get that one, either)

But he wanted to pass on his regret in not being able to participate in the ceremony honouring the Boston Giants.

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