WASHINGTON -- Every day, the power players shake off their suits and ties, don helmets and kneepads and face off outside one of the world's most politically important addresses.
The sport: street hockey. The arena: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Since the Clinton administration barred traffic from the boulevard outside the White House two years ago, buttoned-up Washingtonians have declared it their unofficial rink.
"It's a great way to blow off stress," said John Moore, a paralegal at the Justice Department who cannot wait to put on his face mask and Pittsburgh Penguins jersey at lunch. "It's such a grind every day. We need this."
Moore is so addicted to the game that he keeps a full-size goal net behind his desk and drags it two blocks for the matches. His colleague Mike Nee brings extra sticks in case another office worker breaking for lunch decides to join. They call themselves "The Blades of Justice."
The sport, in its White House locale, attracts lawyers, lobbyists and bureaucrats who need a place where they can go during the day to hit something. Hard.
The street, which was closed to traffic after the Secret Service raised concerns about potential terrorist acts, sometimes attracts 30 players at a time. With games at lunch, after work and on weekends, hockey has become part of the landscape.
When President Clinton pulls into the White House through the front entrance, the hockey players are almost always there, peering at his motorcade. When a head of state visits, the welcoming committee stands at attention with scraped elbows and scuffed sticks. Even when police load protesters into a police van, the athletes bear sober and sweaty witness.
But the arena might not be theirs forever. City leaders and some federal lawmakers want to reopen the street because of the downtown gridlock the closure has caused.
The National Park Service, meanwhile, has proposed cobbling the street, setting inlaid stars in the intersections, curving it and remaking the area into a pedestrian mall -- altering the smooth, straight stretch that hockey players have found so desirable.
The games never would have started were it not for the persistence of the hockey jocks. Among them, Dan Chiu, a player from Montreal, brought friends to the White House block shortly after it closed. He pronounced it street hockey heaven.
"It was flat, it was closed, it was perfect," said Chiu, 31. "We had to keep coming back."
At first, police tried to stop the games, demanding that players stand within 10 feet of their gym bags to ensure that they were not depositing explosives. But the determined roller-bladers made their bags goal posts and stuck players there full time.
Now, the guards seem to accept the games as part of the scenery. Office workers watch at lunch. Tourists snap pictures of themselves with the players.
There are no real teams or tournaments, just cul-de-sac variety pickup games. Players use the 1930s-era street lights as line markers and sometimes ask uniformed Secret Service agents to retrieve stray balls from the White House lawn. When a limousine rolls past the gate, they yell, "Car!" and skate out of the way.
The play is civilized, even courteous. This is what happens when a hockey game is surrounded by so many people with guns. The Secret Service, district police and U.S. Park Police patrol the area, about the length of two city blocks.
"I'm surprised they even let us play at all," said Mike Cormier, 33, a free-lance filmmaker and player. Fearful that the games might someday be stopped, he plans to make a documentary about them.
The street was closed to traffic on May 20, 1995, a month after the Oklahoma City bombing. The move -- to provide a buffer against terrorist attacks -- was a boon to hockey players. While eight to 12 weeks of play can cost up to $90 a person in organized suburban leagues, at the White House, the games are free.
It is, for some, the only reason to get near 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Dick White, who worked as a White House administrator during the Carter and Reagan presidencies, returns to the address now only with a stick in his hand.
"I'm glad I'm on this side of the gate," said White, now a Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board analyst. "It can get pretty mean in there. I wouldn't go back."
Politics sometimes sets the tone for the game. When Macedonians staged a pro-democracy rally recently, the Justice Department staff members had to shout their plays over the raised voices of demonstrators. They pretended that the protesters were fans.
And, occasionally, a presidential visitor will grouse about the flying balls.
"How can I get across the street without getting whacked?" asked Raymond Almeida, an international policy analyst hurrying for a group meeting with the president. He scowled at the players and hustled even faster for the Old Executive Office Building. "I have real problems with this."
To others, the spot is good for business. Jason Gresczyk, a business consultant, brings his datebook and business cards to games.
"I'll talk to anything that moves," he said, approaching a player who does consulting in India. Disregarding his own bloody elbow, Gresczyk shook the player's hand and slipped him a card.
But some out-of-towners are appalled by the sight of a hockey game at one of the world's most famous addresses. Even a Canadian was taken aback.
"Hockey? Here? It is too sacred a place," said Clermont Landry, a Quebec accountant and longtime ice hockey player, as he watched a game. "This would never happen in my country."
Pub Date: 6/30/97