Representative John Katko and I skate toward the bench, our breathing ragged and shoulders hunched. We're just one shift into the game, and already it feels like the third period; it has been far too long since either of us played. We haul ourselves over the boards as our replacements take the ice, and the Republican freshman from Syracuse emits a single drawn-out expletive as he plops down. "How ya feeling?" he asks, as if the answer isn't obvious.
The two of us are first-timers at one of Washington's least-known sports traditions: Monday-night hockey. Every week, a few members of Congress drive out to the Mount Vernon RECenter in Alexandria and suit up, joined by Hill staffers, lobbyists, and campaign operatives. Tonight, they've let me join the fun. To a casual observer, it looks like any other pickup game. Players wear a hodgepodge of jerseys, many sporting the logo of a hometown team. The skate-battered wooden bleachers are empty, and no championship banners hang in the rafters—just fluorescent lights dangling from a low-slung ceiling. A steady stream of classic rock plays over the loudspeakers—"Highway to Hell," "Sweet Home Alabama"—as the trash talk ("chirping," in hockey parlance) flows freely. Players tap their sticks on the boards to cheer the occasional great shot or save.
(AdriÃ Fruitós illustration.)Given the competitive nature of Capitol Hill, it's no surprise that Washington is big on participatory sports: President Obama is among Washington's many avid golfers, and former Chief Justice William Rehnquist played tennis weekly with his clerks. Pickup basketball is a way of life for many a congressional aide and White House staffer, and the National Mall teems in warm weather with league softball games.
The Alexandria hockey game, like the sport itself, is different—a free-form affair with "no score, no refs, no chippy crap, lots of good-natured chirping, and loud music," says Nick Lewis, a UPS lobbyist and an organizer of the game. Lewis, who credits a midlife conversion to hockey as the reason he survived a heart attack at age 41, started the Monday games eight years ago with fellow Hill friends who skated. When the Congressional Hockey Challenge, an annual charity game, started in 2009, some members were reluctant to play after not having taken the ice in years. (This year's Challenge is March 25, at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington.) So Lewis invited them to the Monday skate, and a few have become regulars, including Rep. Pat Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican who spent two years as a National Hockey League referee.
"It's a great break from all of the tension here," Meehan had told me earlier on Monday in his office. "You go from morning to night in this job. You never really get a break." But once a week, "it's just you and the rink and the other guys. Nobody's telling you in three minutes you gotta break and go to the next thing. Nobody's ringing the phone and telling you how you should be acting or voting. It's all just pure fun."
The game is a political melting pot, drawing players from both sides of the aisle, and lobbying types from places as diverse as Google and the American Gaming Association. (Tonight's players include a GOP campaign operative, a Senate photographer, a pilot, and a cop.) "Everyone forgets their political stripes," Lewis says, "and they just get along as people." Not long after an election a few cycles back, he recalls, two players introduced themselves while changing in the locker room, discovering that one worked for then-Rep. Ron Klein, a Democrat, while the other worked for Republican Allen West, who had just unseated Klein. "It was met with a mutual shoulder shrug," Lewis says. "They became buddies. It's what I love about the skate."
Of course, that doesn't mean participants don't care how they play. "I don't want to embarrass myself," Katko told me before the game. He played club hockey at Niagara University in upstate New York and now coaches his sons' team; after a late Friday-night vote on the Hill the previous week, he'd been up at dawn on Saturday for an all-day tournament back home. But he didn't expect—in Congress, of all places—to find himself recruited to play again. "Meehan's been cajoling me to bring my equipment," he says. It wasn't a hard sell. "I'm like a little kid. I'm getting all excited about getting out and playing again. It's all I can think about the last few days. My kids are making fun of me."
As the game wears on, Katko gets a few shots away, but the goalie turns them aside. Finally, I get my own opportunity: A teammate's shot ricochets off the goalie's pads, and I find myself in front of an open net with the puck on my stick. All it takes is a gentle nudge to score; even a Pee Wee player could manage it. Ping! My shot hits the goalpost and bounces back in front of the net, a one-in-a-million miss. Fortunately, another player corrals the rebound and shoots it home. My teammates kindly refrain from ribbing me, perhaps wary of being quoted.
A few years ago, then-Sen. John Kerry surprised the regulars by showing up for the game, then held at a Southeast D.C. rink. Still wearing a suit, he walked in lugging his own bag, changed clothes, and hopped into the action. Kerry, coming off a pair of hip replacements, didn't win any footraces, but the players say he was effective when he had the puck. After a few outings, though, he became secretary of State and hasn't made it back to the game.
Those who've remained have formed close bonds. "Normally, you just get to know members on your committee or in your class," says Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Minnesota Republican who is cited by the others as one of the most-improved skaters. "The members you spend time with away from campus, getting to know them—those are who you build relationships with. That's who you partner with to move legislation through."
Nobody's talking legislation tonight, though. As the game winds down, I find myself in the offensive zone at the end of a long shift. A teammate passes me the puck, and I quickly fling a shot toward the goal. It's a feeble effort, an accidental knucklepuck that has no business going in. Nevertheless, it finds its way through the goalie's pads and across the line. "You gonna write about that now?" a teammate cracks as I skate to the bench. You bet.