WASHINGTON -- While congratulating the Boston Bruins on their 2011 Stanley Cup championship, President Barack Obama did the obligatory spotlighting of key players in that run. Zdeno Chara got the height joke. Brad Marchand was chided for being the "Little Ball of Hate." Tim Thomas was celebrated for being only the second American player to win playoff MVP, having posted two shutouts in the Final.
Chara smiled. Marchand blushed.
Thomas wasn't there to hear it.
Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli confirmed that Thomas had told him months ago he would not attend the White House event due to his political and ideological differences with the Obama administration. Chiarelli said he had tried to convince Thomas to attend the event "over the last couple months" to no avail.
"He chose not to come. The reasons behind it I think he'll make the media aware through his Facebook," said Chiarelli.
The GM said that he could have mandated Thomas attend the event, but chose not to. "I can require someone to attend a team event. If they don't, I can suspend him. But I'm not going to suspend Tim. Whatever his position is isn't representative of the Boston Bruins or my own. But I'm not going to suspend him."
Bruins team president Cam Neely said the decision was Thomas' and the team honored his choice.
"Everybody has their own opinions and political beliefs. He chose not to join us," said Neely. "We certainly would have liked to have him come and join us but that's his choice. All the guys came except for Tim. It's his decision and his choice."
While his politics aren't common knowledge among many hockey fans, Thomas hasn't hidden his political leanings. He's a fan of former Fox News channel host Glenn Beck, once saying he aspired to appear on Beck's talk show as a guest.
Big Government, a website founded by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, celebrated Thomas as a "true Tea Party patriot" for having "In God We Trust" and the Gadsden flag on his mask. From Big Government:
In addition to displaying his support for the Tea Party on the ice, Thomas is a FreedomWorks donor, giving generously right before the historic November 2010 elections, according to the FEC.
Chiarelli said he hoped Thomas' decision not to attend the White House event wouldn't overshadow the Bruins' day.
"We're like a family. We have our issues. You deal with them and move on, and try and support everyone," he said. "It may or may not. If it does … I hope it doesn't. The guys enjoyed the day."
My take: Good on Thomas.
Good on Thomas for using this moment — where a professional sports team participates in what's both an honor for its accomplishments and a political photo opportunity — to make a political statement of his own.
It's the moment when Thomas will no doubt lose a lot of supporters, for sure, when they realize an athlete they celebrate has stark political differences than they have. He's not the first nor the last athlete to choose not to visit the White House.
It's a moment in which a professional athlete uses his fame, his influence for something he believes in, and does something that won't be popular among fans or media. Sean Avery did the same thing: Potentially alienating his teammates by taking a political stand on gay marriage.
If he's celebrated and Thomas is demonized, what does that say about our real tolerance of free speech? That it's only free when we agree with it?
(And for the "separation of politics and hockey" crowd — that flies out the window when you agree to be a backdrop to a speech in an election year. Or any year.)
There's a difference between freedom of speech and speech without consequence, of course. This is the moment when Tim Thomas, the most valuable player to his team last June, did something that detracted from his teammates' celebration. This is the moment when, for better or worse, he becomes something more than the blue-collar hockey player from Flint with the great backstory and the sterling save percentage.
And as long as he's willing to accept that his absence from an event that even Tomas Kaberle attended has overshadowed this day and changed his profile as an athlete, then like Cam Neely I'll respect the decision.