When star athlete Tim Thomas led the Boston Bruins to their first Stanley Cup in nearly four decades last spring, he could do no wrong, a conquering hero beloved by fans of all political stripes.
But the popular goaltender was caught squarely in the partisan fray yesterday after skipping Monday’s White House ceremony to honor the team, a politically motivated decision that many fans denounced as selfish and ill-timed and that renewed a long-running debate over the melding of sports and politics.
Most fans interviewed yesterday said that the two worlds, like church and state, should keep to themselves.
“Who cares what your political beliefs are?’’ Cherie Moraes, a Bruins fan from Revere, asked yesterday. “The whole team was there to be honored, as a team. Just go with the flow.’’
In a statement posted on his Facebook page after Monday’s event, Thomas described his absence as a protest against government encroachment, saying the federal government had “grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties, and property of the people.’’
Thomas blamed both parties for “the situation we are in as a country.’’ Thomas declined to comment yesterday.
For most fans, Thomas’s political views were beside the point. The ceremony with President Obama was meant to celebrate the team’s success, they said, not serve as one player’s political platform. And Republicans and Democrats alike said it was disrespectful for Thomas to slight the president.
“Just stick to hockey,’’ grumbled Billy Norton, 57, a construction worker from Weymouth.
The team has known for several months that Thomas did not plan to attend the White House ceremony, and some saw his absence as predictable, describing Thomas as a me-first maverick who often puts himself ahead of the team.
Thomas’s snub marked the latest controversy stirred by an athlete’s political stance.
Last September, former football star Dan Hampton declined an invitation to a White House reception for the 1985 Chicago Bears, saying he was “not a fan of the guy in the White House.’’
Two years ago, Phoenix Suns basketball players wore “Los Suns’’ jerseys during a game to signal their opposition to Arizona’s new immigration law. The team’s general manager, Steve Kerr, said the team felt a responsibility to take a stand.
“Some people may think that it’s not our job to take a political stance, but we feel like because we’re in the public eye and in the nation’s eye, it’s important to raise the issue and do what we can,’’ Kerr said at the time.
In 2006, several athletes, including quarterback Kurt Warner, appeared in a television commercial opposing a Missouri amendment favoring embryonic stem cell research.
For the most part, however, star athletes keep a safe distance from politics, careful to avoid alienating fans. Bruins management, for instance, quickly distanced itself from Thomas’s views, and expressed disappointment that Thomas did not attend the White House ceremony. The coach, Claude Julien, said, “We don’t mix politics with hockey.’’
Fans seemed to agree. In an informal survey on Boston.com, a strong majority said that Thomas “shouldn’t have stolen his team’s spotlight.’’
Other fans were conflicted. Gary Janvrin, a diehard fan dressed in a Milan Lucic jersey as he sat beside the ice rink on Boston Common, said he was a bit disappointed that Thomas used a team ceremony to advance his personal political views. But he felt that Thomas’s point about the government was well taken and that he had every right to express his views.
“He’s just doing what he thinks is right for the country,’’ said Janvrin, a 38-year-old from Salem, N.H. “I stand by what he did. He wasn’t the first athlete to express his political views, and he won’t be the last.’’
Across the Common, Jon Szostakowski of Danvers said the controversy was much ado about nothing. Athletes, like everyone else, should be allowed to speak their mind.
“He’s entitled to his opinion,’’ the 37-year-old said. “What’s the big deal?’’
Others saw Thomas’s stance as refreshing, a rare example of an athlete taking a stand for his beliefs.
“Good for him,’’ said Leslie Good, a 30-year-old from Boston who said she only follows sports when it makes the news pages. “There aren’t a lot of people willing to stand up for their ideals. It’s risky to go against the grain.’’
Christine Morabito - president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, a political group - agreed.
“It took a lot of guts,’’ she said. “Any public figure that comes out as a conservative in Massachusetts is going to get a lot of backlash.’’
In 2010, Thomas gave $2,000 to a political action committee affiliated with the Tea Party, records show.
Whether they agreed or not with Thomas’s decision and politics, the strong majority of fans polled said it would not change how they feel about him. As long as he and the Bruins keep playing well, nothing else matters.
“No one’s happy about politics,’’ one fan remarked. “But if the Bruins win it again, there will be dancing in the street.’’Fluto Shinzawa, Globe staff, contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.