Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nothing left to lose but a hockey game

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WASHINGTON -- The 68-year-old playmaker teeters out of the dressing room like a whooping crane on skates.

He's still nursing a broken nose from a pickup game with his own family, and, having had both hips replaced, going hard for three periods won't be easy.

He'll have to wear a foggy plastic visor today, making it even tougher for a veteran centreman to caucus with his wingers in a town where there is no neutral zone

Had he won the presidency of the United States eight years ago, the tall, grey man in the red home jersey with number 1 on the back would be watching the scoreboard tick down the dying seconds of his second term.

Yes, and the ayatollahs would have not the slightest interest in atomic bombs, Greece would be as solvent as Lehman Brothers, and gasoline would not cost as much as maple syrup.

But he did not win, and now, on a Sunday afternoon on the home ice of the sinking Washington Capitals, with perhaps 500 people in the stands, Senator John Forbes Kerry eases onto the ice for the pre-game skate, moves in alone on goal, lets go a wobbling wrist shot and hits the post, just as he did against George W. Bush in 2004.

"I'm not ready to hang it up," the ranking Democrat on the roster smiles, wheeling back to the warmup with nothing left to lose but a hockey game.

About to begin is the 4th Annual Congressional Hockey Challenge -- Lawmakers versus Lobbyists -- with a few new twists since the last buzzer sounded.

The solons' roster numbers three sitting legislators from each party, including a former National Hockey League referee, plus various staffers and pals.

It does not include the club's erstwhile standup goalie, Representative Anthony Weiner of New York, who had to resign from the House (and the team) last year when revelations about his cyber-sexual adventures left him unfit to swing his stick in anybody's crease.

Among the 39 men -- and one woman -- who are suiting up for the clash are Representatives Brian Higgins of Buffalo and Pat Meehan of Philadelphia, lifelong hockey fans who have been on opposite sides of the ice since Meehan's Flyers (Bobby Clarke, Dave "The Hammer" Schultz) defeated Higgins' Sabres (Gilbert Perreault, Jerry "King Kong" Korab) in six games for the Stanley Cup in 1975. (The Flyers have not won the cup since then; the Sabres never have won it at all.)

Higgins is a Democrat and Murray is a Republican, and between them is a red line of rabid tribalism that is thicker and more crimson than ever.

"It is a dysfunctional Congress that doesn't respond rationally to the people's problems," Higgins tells me, showing off his number 27 sweater, which corresponds to the 27th District of the State of New York, and, perhaps coincidentally, to the jersey worn by the old Sabres tough guy, Larry Playfair. "Washington is so goddamned partisan, and the worst thing is, it's not ideological, it's personal. We're all RIP -- reasonable in person -- and then we come here and fall into the abyss."

The enmity cools temporarily for a charity hockey game, but the public's disgust remains red-hot. A nationwide poll last week asked voters: "If there were a place on your ballot that allowed you to vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress, including your own representative, would you do this or not?" Fifty-six per cent said yes.

"Systems have a tendency to reform themselves if they will not reform from within," Higgins sighs, sensing for whom the bell tolls.

Then he tells me about a game in the early 1970s when the Sabres' Jim Schoenfeld rammed Wayne Cashman of the Boston Bruins through the Zamboni doors of the old Memorial Auditorium. And he remembers wearing a black armband the night after Tim Horton was killed on the Queen Elizabeth Way.

As a teenage hacker in the Buffalo suburbs, the Congressman had skated on an outdoor rink with buddies named Kennedy and Kane. Now those men's sons, Tim and Patrick, were playing in the National Hockey League.

At 56, Pat Meehan has lost a step from the days when he refereed a couple of NHL pre-season games, plus a caseload in the minor leagues. Suiting up to play left defence for the Lawmakers, he recalls his first game ever in the pros: the Baltimore Clippers at the Erie Blades.

"I went to drop the puck, and I noticed the two wingers behind me were jostling," Meehan says. "After about three seconds, they dropped the gloves, and the benches cleared. I hadn't even dropped the puck yet, and I had 30 guys fighting."

On Capitol Hill, where Pat Meehan chairs the subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, a 30-man brawl would hardly be considered a quorum. But Congressional fratricide will have to wait until Monday. At the hockey rink, the door opens and a man who could have been the American president leads his troops to battle in the civilized, Canadian way: clubs in hand, blades sharpened, elbows high, five on five.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2012 J6

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