June 5, 2020

Congressional Hockey Challenge bridges the gap for a good cause

On April 27, while the rest of Verizon Center was preparing for Saturday evening’s Washington Capitals game, the hallway adjacent to the Capitals locker room was a frenzy of excitement. Intermittently, a figure, alternately in a red or white jersey,  lumbering on hockey skates, would make their way out to the hallway to get some air, or to speak to a reporter.

It was a bit unusual for 1:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, considering the main attraction wasn’t until 7:00 p.m. that night, when the Washington Capitals would play their final game of the regular season versus the Boston Bruins. The figures wearing red and white jerseys were not members of the Capitals or Bruins. They were there for something a little bit different – a hockey game for charity, the 5th Annual Congressional Hockey Challenge.

Founded in 2009, the Congressional Hockey Challenge raises funding for college scholarships and hockey programming, and has raised more than $400, 000 for its causes. This year’s event was held at Verizon Center for the second year in a row. Former Boston Bruin and hockey icon Willie O’Ree performed the ceremonial puck drop and also attended the Capitals game against the Bruins that evening.

The game stars a team of lawmakers (members of Congress, Senators and staff from legislative and executive branches) pitted against a team of lobbyists. It seems apropos to blend the rough-and-tumble sport of hockey with the rough-and-tumble sport of politics in the nation’s capital.

One might be surprised to note that all of the participants on both teams are lifelong hockey players. Congressman Pat Meehan (PA), was an NHL referee for two years before going into politics, and said the CHC helped him rediscover his passion for the sport. “I hadn’t skated for some time before I came back to this game. I grew up playing hockey, and I truly stayed with it,” he said. “Hockey was a big part of my life for a long period of time, but when I came here, I had given it up and I hadn’t skated in five years.”

“When they knew that I had a hockey background, they asked me to get involved with the game, so I came out and then made a fool of myself. But I’ve actually had an awful lot of fun, and it’s been a reason for me to get back into it,” said Meehan, who admitted his status assisted him in making the Lawmakers team. “It’s easier for me to get on the team because if you’re in Congress and can lace your skates up, I think you get on,” he chuckled.

Erik Paulsen, a congressman from Minnesota, had a recruiting experience similar to Meehan’s. ”I got recruited last year cause I’m from Minnesota, so they just figure everyone from Minnesota plays hockey. I grew up playing on the lake but never played organized hockey,” he said. “It’s for a good cause, and now I’m playing once a week out here.”

If you’re not a member of Congress, however, the competition to make the team is tougher. “It’s probably one of the only big hockey games outside of the Caps that happens, at least in our level of play these days, so everyone wants to play. In the small group that does play hockey, there is a waiting list,” said Michelle McGann, of the National Republican Congressional Committee, a member of the Lawmakers team.

McGann’s involvement with the team came almost by accident – she merely wanted to play hockey but ended up on the waiting list for the annual game.

“I moved to DC about two years ago and I’ve been playing hockey my entire life, so when I came down here, I tried to find a competitive league and similar to Melissa, I heard of this man named Nick Lewis that we were supposed to talk to about getting involved,” she said. “I spoke to him, and Tim Regan who works on the Hill, and started coming to these Monday night skates, and a lot of the players in this game are pulled from the Monday night skate. So I got on a waiting list and just crossed my fingers that I would finally make the cut.”

Every Monday night, a mixed group of lawmakers and lobbyists skates at Mount Vernon Ice Arena in Alexandria, VA. Many of the players in the annual Challenge game are pulled from these skates, according to McGann.

“It’s basically an exclusive pickup league,” said McGann. “There’s a group of maybe 40 or 50 people in the email chain, and we hope to have about 30 people come every night, and you just wear dark or white and you just play for an hour and a half.”

Melissa Lavinson, a member of the Lobbyists team, said attendance at the Monday night skates is unpredictable, but everyone is glad to for the opportunity to play hockey, even with a short bench.

“I’ve been to some of the night skates where there’s maybe about 12 people and you wind up playing 6-on-5-on-5, one sub for an hour,” she said. “It’s just fun.”

McGann agreed.  “Everyone understands that you’re just out there to get a good workout and to be on the ice, so it’s great for girls, we’re obviously smaller than a lot of men, so they’re respectful and you don’t have to be too concerned about getting injured.”

Even though the weekly skates are primarily casual and low-key, the competitive nature of each player emerges when it comes to competing in the actual Congressional Challenge game.

“Everyone who plays a sport always has a competitive edge, and you realize that it’s been dormant for so long until you get in a situation where score matters,” said McGann. “You kind of put aside your friendships in some way and you want to win.”

John Goodwin, who represented the Lobbyists this year, said the Congressional game is kind of a big deal for the players, even though many do not have the chance to play as much as they’d like.

“For a bunch of amateurs and older folks, its intense competition, everyone takes it seriously, and we’re playing real hockey,” he said. “Everybody looks forward to it.”

Washington Capitals alumnus and CSN Washington analyst Alan May took some time out of his busy game-day duties and volunteered to coach the Lawmakers team this year. His coaching philosophy was all about moral support, making sure the players knew when to change lines – and scoring goals, of course.

“They all know how to play hockey, they’re all lifelong lovers of the game, they all played youth hockey, so it’s just a matter of just being there to support these guys,” said May.

May predicted it would be an “ugly game,” and an ugly game it was – for the Lawmakers. May’s pupils were shelled for double-digit goals, and fell to the Lobbyists, 11-3 in front of a modest cluster of rowdy spectators.

There is a trophy that the winning team gets to keep for the year, which is more for bragging rights than anything. As it stands, the Lobbyists lead the Challenge series record 3-2.

Photos from the event, courtesy of C&I Studios, can be found here.

 Katie Brown is a Staff Writer for District Sports Page. She grew up in Virginia and Maryland, currently resides in Arlington, VA, and developed a love for the sport of hockey as a youngster while watching her brothers play. She combined her enthusiasm for the game with her love of writing after college. Katie has covered the Capitals as credentialed media for two seasons for several area blogs before joining the DSP staff. Katie works at a nonprofit organization by day but the rest of her time is devoted to watching, writing, and talking about hockey and perfecting her mean one-timer. You can follow Katie on Twitter@katie_brown47.

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