Tim Thomas and the Obama snub: free speech or impolitic politics?

Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins netminder and Vezina Trophy winner, skipped a White House event Monday to honor the team's Stanley Cup-winning season. He cited a government that is 'threatening the rights, liberties, and property of the people.'

Tim Shaffer/Reuters
Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas reacts after defeating the Philadelphia Flyers during the shootout period of their NHL hockey game in Philadelphia, Pa., Sunday. Thomas skipped a White House event with President Obama on Monday to honor the team's Stanley Cup-winning season.

If the “Don't tread on me” Gadsden flag reference on Tim Thomas' goalie mask hadn't made the point clearly enough, the netminder's decision to skip the Boston Bruins' team meeting with President Obama on Monday certainly did.

Yes, Thomas, arguably the most dynamic goalie in the NHL, is a tea partyer, a believer in less, not more, government. But Thomas' White House snub, in which he cited “threats” to individual liberty by a government growing “out of control,” made the Stanley Cup MVP an instant pariah among many Bruins fans in liberal Boston, where one columnist labeled his move “bratty.”

But the decision may also be resonating with those who believe that individual conviction trumps collective celebrations. The bearded puckstopper is imbued with a flinty, blue-collar work ethic, but his own career arc – 217th draft pick to No. 1 NHL goalie – also embodies the classic rags-to-riches American story that seems to have forged a strong personal defense of, as Thomas writes, "the Constitution and the Founding Fathers' vision for the Federal government."

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What's more, complaints that athletes should be seen, not heard, come off as a bit disingenuous, some commentators argue. They ask whether the tilt of Thomas' politics – he contributes to the conservative Freedom Works organization and once said he wanted to be a guest on Glenn Beck's now-cancelled Fox show – is critics' real objection. 

Few argued, for example, when New York Rangers forward Sean Avery last year took a political stand, potentially alienating his teammates, to stand up for gay rights, including same-sex marriage.

“This is the moment when, for better or worse, [Thomas] becomes something more than the blue-collar hockey player from Flint, with the great backstory and the sterling save percentage,” writes Pete Wyshynski at Yahoo Sports.

Thomas noted in a statement on his Facebook page that “this was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country.”

The snub, however, resonated with all the force of a political bowshot. The Boston press roundly jeered, Thomas, one of the singular heroes of the team's Stanley Cup-winning campaign last year, with a few of them noting that the Michigan native didn't seem to mind accepting a silver medal on behalf of the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“Someone so disgusted with our government ought to turn in the sweater and the medal,” wrote Kevin Paul DuPont, a veteran Boston Globe hockey writer. “It must be a horrible burden, if not a pox, to have them in his house.”

Many commentators and fans say Thomas' decision was a breach of protocol that overshadowed his teammates' day in the White House sun, taking the gloss off their accomplishment to serve his own agenda.

It's not the first time such criticism has been leveled against athletes who fail to RSVP the White House.

Last year, former Chicago Bears player Dan Hampton and three NASCAR drivers, including champ Jimmie Johnson, turned down White House invitations.

In the case of the NASCAR drivers, they said scheduling complications made the visit impossible. Critics, though, questioned whether that was a real excuse: Seriously, you really can't block out a few minutes to chat with the leader of the free world?

In a more pointed snub, Hampton refused a visit to belatedly commemorate the Bears' Super Bowl victory 25 years ago, saying, “I'm not a fan of the guy in the White House.”

(Pittsburgh Steelers tackler-in-chief James Harrison, meanwhile, took a more bipartisan approach, blowing off both George W. Bush in 2006 and Mr. Obama in 2009.)

The Bruins brass, who banished young gun Tyler Seguin to the press box for a game this year after he missed a team session, have credited unity as one reason for the team's success last year. But they said they won't suspend Thomas for his political activism.

"Everybody has their own opinions and political beliefs, and he chose not to join us," said Bruins president Cam Neely. "We certainly would have liked to have him come and join us, but that's his choice. Obviously, it's not a choice that most of the guys, all the guys came except for Tim. That's his decision and his choice."

But if Thomas made news by standing up for his right to speak, and act, his mind, Obama nevertheless chose to single him out as a unique athletic asset for the US of A.

"This Stanley Cup was won by defense as much as by offense," Obama said. "Tim Thomas posted two shutouts in the Stanley Cup finals and set an all-time record for saves in the postseason, and he also earned the honor being only the second American ever to be recognized as the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP."

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