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Hockey and politics a growing mix

Sports and politics have always had something of a mutual dance.

Basketball gave us a U.S. Senator in Bill Bradley, not to mention a former commissioner, Larry O'Brien, who served as campaign director for John F. Kennedy. Football gave us a long-time U.S. Congressman and Vice Presidential candidate in Jack Kemp, a U.S. Congressman in Steve Largent, and a state Supreme Court judge in Alan Page. Baseball gave us U.S. Senator Jim Bunning and a team owner, George W. Bush, who won two terms in the White House.

Even pro wrestling gave us a governor, Jesse Ventura (Minnesota), and bodybuilding gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger (California).

Hockey? Well, U.S. Senator John Kerry played a little at a prep school in New Hampshire. Does that count? Otherwise, in America the sport has always been like a low-profile third party that's more concerned with goals than polls.

But to quote Bob Dylan, that noted hockey fan from Hibbing, Minn., the times they are a changin' when it comes to hockey people and political opinions in the public arena.

Last January, Tim Thomas became Massachusetts' biggest right-winger since Mitt Romney when he skipped out on the Boston Bruins' visit to the White House where they were feted by President Barack Obama for winning the Stanley Cup. On his Facebook page, Thomas said: "The Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties and property of the people."

Thomas' commentary touched off a deluge of controversy that likely will always be prominently featured on his Wikipedia page, right up there with winning Boston's first Cup since Richard Nixon was in office. Thomas, who moved to ultra-conservative Colorado Springs, Colo., last year, waded back into the political waters last summer with a defense of eatery Chick-fil-A after its CEO made remarks about traditional marriage that were interpreted by many as homophobic. (Thomas declined to speak with SI.com for this story.)

Then, on Oct. 17, a shot across the bow -- from right to left -- came from the seemingly unlikely Twitter account of former NHL defenseman Brent Sopel, who said this: "If you crazies elect Obama again I'm coming back to Chicago and living off the system. Hell, maybe even a free cell phone."

Sopel, who won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010 and shook the hand of President Obama at a White House ceremony the following year, is a Canadian citizen making his living by playing hockey in Russia. What, many who shot 140-character insults back his way wanted to know, was he doing opening his mouth about American politics less than a month before the Presidential election? Sopel received invective from left-wingers everywhere, and even from a hockey journalist -- Jesse Spector of The Sporting News -- who tweeted back, "Good luck and have fun in Chicago public housing."

Sopel also drew fire for weighing in on the September strike by public school teachers in Chicago for tweeting "CPS teachers strike during this economy. Be happy you have a job in a profession YOU chose" and "Yes (NHL) arenas are funded with tax payer money. Along with that they bring jobs and revenue to the cities. Gov. money doesn't fund our pension."

Currently skating for Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, Sopel is a Canadian, but his wife and daughter are American citizens. Besides, he has paid plenty of money in taxes to the U.S. government, and that affords him the right, he said, to express an opinion about it.

"Anyone who thinks (just) because we play a sport for a living means we can't understand social or fiscal policy is out of their minds," Sopel told SI.com. "That's like saying that every fan has no idea about hockey because they don't play it professionally. Politics are discussed daily in our household, and my wife (Kelly) was the catalyst for me opening my eyes. Our (four) children will grow up with their own beliefs, but as long as they learn and pay attention to what's going on around them, I can't ask for much more."

About using the word "crazies," Sopel elaborated thusly: "It was never intended to be serious. I think too many people take each word and dissect it all if they don't agree with your beliefs. Do I think some are off the wall? Yes, I'm sure they think the same of me. I am who I am and make no apologies. I've been called far worse on Twitter and throughout my career. I thought crazies was being kind.

"Yes, my political beliefs are pretty conservative, but on fiscal policy. Socially, I'm pretty liberal, actually. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have taken the Stanley Cup to the Pride Parade in Chicago, or donated money to Lambda Legal. I believe in a woman's right to choose, etc. Many don't know that and would assume I'm a Republican across the board. My political awakening began when I started paying taxes in the States and owning businesses, property and things like that. When you see the mess we're in and how much money is going to the government, it's a natural reaction to wonder and ask questions."

In polling terms, hockey players who are outspoken politically are probably still outliers, though some people in the sport -- most notably Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and his son Patrick (a Flyers scout), and players such as Sopel, Sean Avery, James Van Riemsdyk, Mark Fayne, Frans Nielsen, Tyler Bozak, George Parros, Brandon Prust, David Steckel, Andy Greene, RJ Umberger and Brian Boyle -- have taken public stands for tolerance and gay rights in sports, particularly by appearing in public service announcements for the You Can Play Project. But the tradtional hockey way remains: Don't stick out individually from the rest, keep your mouth shut, don't make waves. Yet, the more money that players have made in recent years, the more the evidence seems to indicate that they are paying closer attention to how much of it will go to the government. Hence, a heightened wider interest in politics.

"I have heard politics discussed in dressing rooms," said Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman John-Michael Liles, a native of Indiana. "But I have always chosen to stay out of it. I've always said I wouldn't discuss religion and politics with friends. But honestly, I've seen players all over the map; some are conservative, some liberal. (The) percentage (is) leaning more toward conservative though."

Because the majority who've played in the NHL since the league's inception are Canadians, it follows that the most politically active players have been so in their native country. Three Hockey Hall of Famers -- winger Frank Mahovlich (Liberal, 1998-present), goalie Ken Dryden (Liberal, 2004-2011) and defenseman Red Kelly (Liberal, 1962-65; here's an SI profile) -- have served in Canada's parliament. Another, winger Maurice "Rocket" Richard, was never a politician, but many credit him for helping to inspire the "Quiet Revolution" of Quebec politics in the 1960s. On Nov. 15, 1976, the Parti Quebecois led by Rene Levesque was voted into power for the first time. It has advocated the province's secession from Canada and remains formidable to this day.

"We had a player, Serge Savard, whose nickname was 'The Senator,'" said former Montreal Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman. "I still remember we had a game the night of that election, a Monday night, and they made an announcement at the Forum about the results. It was crazy in the building after that, and Serge was pounding his stick on the boards when the results came in."

Hockey and politics certainly mixed with the epic Canada-Russia matches of the 1970s and '80s, and the USA-Russia "Miracle on Ice" Olympic matchup in Lake Placid in 1980 -- which some historians credit as a catalyst for America's re-awakening on the world stage for the next decade. Currently, some people believe the ongoing lockout of NHL players by team owners is a microcosm of the haves vs. have-nots political climate in America, with the "Occupy" crowd (players) against the "one-percenters" (owners) with a third class (team office and arena personnel; local business owners and workers whose livelihoods benefit from hockey) hurt by the fray.

With an average salary of about $2.4 million after last season, however, even players acknowledge that's a bit of a stretch. Or is it?

"They are the point-one-percenters," Liles said of the owners.

Sopel, though he was part of a union as an NHL player -- conservatives usually don't like unions -- said his real beef is about how governments spend the money he gives them. He believes that more players should open their eyes. "There were always guys who talked politics and were informed, but there were many that had no idea. They'd actually ask me what was going on or who to vote for," Sopel said. "I always told them to look at their paycheck. When you're paying that much in taxes, you have a responsibility socially to help, and to yourself to be informed."

When he met the President in 2010 during the Blackhawks' ceremony, Sopel said he did talk to Obama about the problems one of his daughters had with eight years worth of red tape despite Sopel having an American wife. "I'm happy to say now, she's an American citizen," Sopel said.

Even if he received a favor from President Obama, Sopel still gives every impression that he wouldn't vote for him even if he could.

"I'm just happy," Sopel said, "to have the ability to speak out freely and express my views."

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