Sunday, September 04, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Matt Bradley

If William Howard Taft seemed to be a “natural” to become the 27th President of the United States, given the resume he built on his way to the White House, Woodrow Wilson would seem to be anything but a “natural” to rise to that high office.  Spending much of his adult professional life as an academic and college administrator, he did rise up the political ladder, and Wilson served two terms as the 28th President, presiding over a nation that would find itself engaged in the first “world war” among its people.

It would be easy to characterize Wilson as too bookish to merit a comparison with a tough-as-nails hockey player, but it would be a too-easy-to-paint picture of Wilson, and there is a Washington Capital to whom he can be compared, if at first it does not make sense to the mind’s eye: Matt Bradley.

Woodrow Wilson was firmly in the tradition of other Presidents of the United States, at least in terms of his birthplace.  He was the third of four children both to a Staunton, Virginia, family.  Shortly after his family moved to North Carolina in his late teens, Wilson started studies at Davidson University, but he transferred to Princeton University the following year.  Upon graduation he enrolled in the University of Virginia Law School, but he withdrew after one year due to health issues.  He completed his law studies in North Carolina and was admitted to the Georgia bar.  He soon found that law was not to his liking and returned to school, earning his Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University (he is the only President to have earned a Ph.D.).

The newly minted Ph.D. embarked on an academic career, over a four year period taking positions at Cornell University, Bryn Mawr College, and Wesleyan University.  Then, in 1890, he returned to Princeton to teach politics and jurisprudence.  There he developed an academic reputation for advocating a parliamentary system and for closer study of public administration.  Over the course of his tenure at Princeton, he was offered administrative positions at other universities, but was not until 1902 that he accepted one – the presidency of Princeton University.

Wilson was no caretaker president.  He promoted new investments in facilities, established academic departments, and set up a system of academic core requirements for students.  His reforms were not met with enthusiasm, particularly with respect to where the university’s graduate school would be located, on campus or at a more remote location.

His advocacy of education reform was a matter of some interest to Democratic Party leaders, and they convinced him to run for Governor of New Jersey in 1910.  Wilson has entertained thoughts of political office from time to time, and with Wilson finding his reform agenda resisted at Princeton, he ran and won the race for Governor.  He took office with the idea of implementing reforms at the state level.  His was an anti-corruption agenda with initiatives in regulation (utilities, workmen’s compensation) sprinkled in.

His success in getting a reform agenda implemented early in his term served to promote him at the national level and to fuel his ambition for higher office.  He began making a series of speeches to lay the groundwork for a campaign.  Wilson won over the support of William Jennings Bryan, three times the Democratic Party candidate for President, but he went to the nominating convention an underdog to Speaker of the House Champ Clark.  It was Clark winning the first ballot, but not with enough votes to secure the nomination.  So it would be on the second, and on the third, and on the fourth ballots.  For 29 ballots, Clark won the most votes but not enough for the nomination.  Wilson overtook him on the 30th ballot, but it would not be until the 46th ballot that Wilson won enough votes to win the nomination, the longest nominating process in more than half a century.

Wilson won a bitter general election, threading the needle between a weak incumbent – Republican William Howard Taft – and a famous third-party standard bearer – Progressive Party nominee Theodore Roosevelt. 

Wilson, who said of the office that the Presidency was one in which “a man must put on his war paint,” hit the ground running upon his inauguration.  Economic issues – tariffs, banking, trusts, labor – dominated his early agenda.  But he was, in some respects, despite progressive instincts, a conventional Southern politician.  The most obvious reflection of this was his pursuit of policies to reverse desegregation policies in the post-Civil War period.  In the Federal civil service and in Federal facilities, desegregation policies were slowed or reversed under Wilson

Two things then took place that altered the direction of his presidency.  In July 1914, fighting broke out in Europe to start World War I, and a month later his wife Ellen died of kidney failure.  The latter resulted in a months-long depression for Wilson that only lifted on a trip through the Midwest in which he engaged in what sounded like a campaign speech against the Republicans.  Soon thereafter he met Edith Bolling, who by the end of 1915 would be Wilson’s second wife.

Regarding the war in Europe, Wilson’s instincts were to take whatever action necessary to keep the United States out of the conflict except to serve as a mediator.  He was successful at keeping America at a distance from the war, but shipping being sunk by German submarines, starting with the RMS Lusitania in May 1915, made neutrality a difficult position for Wilson to sustain. 

Wilson was able to keep America out of the war through the 1916 campaign for re-election, and he won a second term, albeit by a narrow margin (277 to 254 electoral votes) over Charles Hughes.  Germany made it easier for Wilson to end his neutrality policy when it went back on pledges to refrain from attacks on commercial shipping and tried to enlist Mexico as an ally in the war with promises of supporting restoration of southwest territories (Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona) to Mexico.

Wilson requested, and Congress passed a declaration of war in April 1917.  Wilson was as much thinking about what a post-war world would look like as he was managing the war effort.  In January 1918 he proposed an agenda that projected ideological basis for his domestic agenda onto a world stage.  The “fourteen points” was a framework for peace to be the basis for negotiations to end World War I. 

Peace would not come easily, as much a product of Wilson’s health and domestic politics as it was a military matter.  Wilson personally spent six months in Paris (the first President to travel to Europe while in office) at the peace conference, but during a break in those talks he became ill, and the effects lingered through the remainder of the negotiations.  However, Wilson’s hand could be seen in the Treaty of Versailles to end the hostilities, the document including the proposed charter for a “League of Nations.” 

The treaty ran into obstacles on its ratification path in the Senate.  He decided to campaign for ratification with a series of speeches advocating a hard line against Germany.  The trip took its toll, Wilson suffering a series of strokes.  His condition prevented him from actively negotiating to break a deadlock that prevented the Senate from reaching a two-thirds majority for ratification.  The Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and the American government assumed no responsibility for administration or implementation of its provisions. 

After the war, demobilization proved difficult, soldiers returning home to an economy that could not absorb them into the labor force, speculation on land prices during the war leading to a bust in the farm economy when the price bubble burst, labor unrest, and racial tension in cities in the North.  Wilson was in no condition to preside with vigor over the situation, and his second term ended with his being physically unable to stand for a third term. 

Matt Bradley’s path to the NHL was not the easiest, but neither was it unconventional.  A fourth-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks in the 1996 Entry Draft (102nd overall) out of the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontatio Hockey League, Bradley played two more years in Canadian juniors before starting his pro career in earnest with the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the AHL in 1998-1999 (he did play one game with the Blades in 1996-1997).

In two years with Kentucky, Bradley scored 45 goals in 159 games.  It was enough to give him a glimpse of the NHL, splitting time between Kentucky and the Sharks in the 2000-2001 season.  His path to full-time status in the NHL was not complete, though.  Injuries and roster depth limited him to 100 games over the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 seasons.  After that 2002-2003 season he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Wayne Primeau, and with the Penguins he appeared in all 82 games of the 2003-2004 season.  In August 2005, after the league went dark for a season over a labor-management dispute, he came to Washington as a free agent. 

Bradley came to the Caps as a hard-working player with limited offensive skill, but with a propensity for sticking his nose into situations when it came time to stand up for a teammate.  In 82 games with the Penguins in 2003-2004 he recorded 11 fights, but what became apparent upon arriving with the Caps was that Bradley’s willingness to use his physical edge to stand up for teammates did not come with a general tendency to play outside the rules.  In 2005-2006 Bradley led the Caps with eight fighting majors, but he recorded only 32 minutes in penalties outside the fighting majors, ranking 17th in minor penalties charged on the club.  When he did jump in, though, he did so with a certain enthusiasm...

Bradley’s offensive game in his early years with the Caps was that of a checking line forward – occasional in terms of production.  But in the 2009 postseason he scored what is one of the most underrated goals in terms of importance in the team’s post-2004-2005 lockout period.  In the first round of the 2009 playoffs, and the Caps down three-to-one in games to the New York Rangers, Brian Pothier was sent off on a tripping penalty in the fourth minute of the game.  A power play goal there by the Rangers might have doomed the Caps to elimination.  Just over a minute into the Ranger power play, though, Bradley broke in on goalie Henrik Lundqvist and scored a shorthanded goal on a backhand to give the Caps a 1-0 lead, the game-winning goal in a 4-0 win that would propel the Caps to a seven-game come-from-behind win over the Rangers.

He also had what is an often-lost moment in one of the most revered moments in the modern era of Caps hockey.  Fans of the “Rock the Red” era either remember vividly being present for the game-winning goal scored by Sergei Fedorov against the Rangers in Game 7 of that 2009 playoff series or wher they were when seeing it on television or listening to it on radio, but perhaps not as many people remember how the play started.  A wrong-footed shot by the Rangers’ Brandon Dubinsky went high and wide to the right of goalie Semyon Varlamov.  The puck skittered along the board where Bradley flagged it down before going off on a line change.  Facing the boards at the edge of the faceoff circle in the Caps’ end, he backhanded a pass to Fedorov exiting the zone, and the rest is history…

Bradley would become known for more than his willingness to drop the gloves for teammates or the odd timely goal.  He became known as an interpreter of x’s and o’s for the casual fan as “The Professor,” complete with lab coat…

Bradley became a forward squarely in the tradition of hard-working, hard-to-play-against players dating back to the 1980’s.  In six full seasons with the Caps, Bradley hit double-digits in points each year, not an altogether bad performance for a player who got primarily fourth-line minutes.  His hard-nosed style of play displayed a remarkably disciplined aspect.  Of his 367 penalty minutes recorded as a Cap, only 132 of them came from infractions other than fighting majors (about 25 minutes per 82 games).  He also had a certain opportunistic aspect to the offense he displayed, too.  Of the 37 regular season goals he scored as a Capital, nine of them were game-winners, including five of the ten goals he scored in the 2009-2010 season.

At the end of the 2011-2012 season, Bradley became an unrestricted free agent.  At the age of 33 and having appeared in just 61 games for the Caps that season, Bradley headed off to Florida, signing a two-year deal with the Panthers.  He would fulfill only one year of that contract, though.  He appeared in just 45 games of the 2011-2012 season, his playing time limited by a concussion he suffered in February in what might be thought of as typical Bradley fashion.  In a mid-February game against the Anaheim Ducks, he tried to check George Parros, a player who had three inches and 30 pounds on Bradley.  He missed, and he crashed into the glass, displacing it and suffering the first of two concussions (the second suffered in his first game with TuTo Turku in Finland during the 2012 NHL lockout) that would end his career in 2012.

Woodrow Wilson was an academic with a streak of toughness that served him in promoting a reform agenda as a university president and as President of the United States.  It enabled him to balance a desire to keep the United States out of war, but allowed him to see clearly the need to enter it as circumstances dictated.  His deteriorating health prevented him from prosecuting the war as he might have had he been in full health, and he was unable to impose his preferred agenda in its aftermath.  His health would plague the remainder of his administration and result in his passing just a few years after leaving office.

Matt Bradley came to the NHL with modest credentials, but he displayed a toughness and a hard-working attitude that enabled him to climb the career ladder in his sport.  He was disciplined enough to exercise that toughness within the rules, except in those instances when coming to the aid of a teammate required otherwise.  He did not have a long list of accomplishments as a player, but he did have special moments on the biggest of stages that are dear to Caps fans.  Before his own health issues would cut short his career, he took his own turn in “academics” as someone who could explain the finer points of hockey tactics to casual fans.  “The Professor” occupied a unique and special place in the recent history of Capitals hockey, and in his own way displays not just a few similarities with the 28th President of the United States.

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