(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."