Brett Connolly’s eyes widen in the locker room of Capital One Arena on an early February night, and he suddenly laughs. The Washington Capitals forward is staring at an image of himself getting a tattoo this past June, taken after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.
“That’s crazy! That’s insane,” he says.
But this is no ordinary portrait; it is a tattoo itself, inked into the bicep of Capitals fan Tyler Duchaine, a man Connolly has never met. It’s kind of strange, Connolly admits, but he understands the bond that connects the two, and that will continue to unite the strangers moving forward.
“That’s one of the highlights of my life,” Connolly says. “And if he’s getting me tattooed on his skin, it’s a highlight of his life, too. Neither of us will ever forget it.”
Capitals goalie Braden Holtby agrees, telling City Paper that even a tattoo as unusual as Duchaine’s carries enormous personal meaning. For hockey players, commitment can run more than skin deep.
It needs to, if they are to endure the maelstrom that is an NHL season. With 82 regular season games and as many as 28 playoff clashes required to win the Stanley Cup each year, contusions, broken bones, and torn ligaments are as dreaded as they are expected.
Which may explain why so many Washington Capitals players can appreciate the sweet sting of pleasure and pain purchased in the form of tattoos.
“Any athlete plays with their heart on their sleeve. You give a lot to get where you are as a hockey player,” says 23-year-old Madison Bowey. The Caps defenseman has four tattoos, and got his first when he was just 18. “Whenever something meaningful comes that I want to always remember, that’s what I get tattoos for.”
Caps goalie and former Vezina Trophy winner Holtby recognizes the impact that ink can have, even if it hurts. The significance and meaning, he says, can last a lifetime.
“It’s pretty cool,” Holtby says. “There’s obviously some spots where it kind of makes you sweat, but that feeling of going through something and the rush you get after it’s done, I like it.”
Tattoos can often take on a more personal nature for hockey players. In the NBA and European soccer, where padding is minimal and sleeves are optional, ink is an outward expression of individuality. Tattoos can even become trademarks for certain players. By contrast, jerseys and equipment keep NHL players’ artwork as private as they choose.
“I think everyone’s different,” says Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, “But I have a couple tattoos that mean a lot to me, and a couple that are just kind of messing around. But no one can see them [on the ice]. There’s a couple that are pretty special to me and maybe I don’t want to talk about them all the time. I do it for me.”
Capitals winger Andre Burakovsky, who got his first tattoo in June along with several teammates after Washington won the Stanley Cup, acknowledges that while you can’t spell rink without ink, fans might not guess it on television.
“We kind of covering our tattoos. I don’t know what it is about basketball players and soccer players … maybe they have [so many] because they think it looks nice? I don’t know, but you don’t see our tattoos as much,” Burakovsky says.
Connolly, who has several tattoos, is extremely familiar with the addictive nature of the needle. He often warns young players that one tattoo almost always leads to more—even if it’s their first time under the gun.
“Once you get that first one, it kind of becomes a little addicting,” he laughs, rubbing his own inked forearms. “Once you get one, you’re kind of labeled as a ‘guy who has tattoos.’ So it doesn’t really matter how many you get.”
“When I got my first one, I couldn’t wait to get another one,” Smith-Pelly agrees. “After getting the Stanley Cup one, I was ready to go for like a nonstop 10-hour session.”
And about that Stanley Cup tattoo: the Capitals capped off a wild day of celebrating all across Washington on June 9 by making an impromptu visit to Tattoo Paradise on 18th Street NW. As the team’s party bus idled outside and some players meandered about on the sidewalk greeting and taking pictures with fans, approximately 10 players got commemorative championship tattoos inside the parlor.
“It was a fun celebration. We were all out there, kind of very accessible to fans,” Connolly recalls. “An amazing day, an amazing moment for all of us. It’s something that we’ll never forget.”
“We said like before the final, if we win this thing, we want to do something that we going to remember. And obviously, that tattoo’s going to be there forever,” Burakovsky says.
For hockey players, blood may be thicker than water, but ink is a close second.
“I think that’s been a tradition for a lot of guys for a long time, to get a Stanley Cup tattoo, or any championship. I know the [Canadian Hockey League] Memorial Cup, all their guys get those, too,” explains Holtby. “It’s one of those things that’s fun to do with your team. To have something permanent on you that’s going to last forever.”
But what about the part of tattoos that people don’t like to talk about, the pain? How does it compare to something hockey players are familiar with: taking a cross-check into the boards?
“It’s a weird feeling to describe, because it hurts, but it kind of feels good?” Smith-Pelly responds. “It hurts, and it feels great. Whereas a cross-check hurts, and it just hurts.” He laughs, and then adds, “Unless you score! Then it feels good. But a regular cross-check? That just hurts.”
“I think getting cross-checked into the boards hurts more, for sure,” says Burakovsky. “[The tattoo] was like burning a little bit, but as soon as it stops, it goes away. A cross-check into the boards can be painful for a while.”
And while Holtby got his most recent tattoo—a buffalo on his forearm—just this month and tells City Paper he loves the rush of endorphins the needle gives him, preferring it to blocking a slap shot from Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara, not every Capitals player finds the burn of the tattoo gun easier to bear than the bruises of the ice.
“Honestly, the tattoo [hurts worse],” Connolly says. “It’s just nonstop for an hour, like a cat scratch. I would honestly say the tattoo.”
Capitals winger Jakub Vrana,who also got his first ink at Tattoo Paradise that night, tells City Paper that even though some liquid courage may have been involved, the pain was still nearly unbearable.
Ellen Arantes, the former social media manager at Tattoo Paradise, attempted to comfort Vrana beforehand by suggesting that getting the tattoo would hurt less than being hit by a hockey puck. That was not the case for the Czech forward.
In a now famous video, a prone Vrana shouts over the whir of the tattoo gun, “Please, hit me with the fucking puck. Hit me with the fucking puck because it hurts so bad. This is crazy. This hurts so bad!”
Even for tough-as-nails NHL players, ink is not something to be undertaken lightly. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t go back under the gun if the right occasion arose.
Say, for another Stanley Cup?
“Oh, absolutely we’d all go back,” Connolly says with a laugh. “I’m pretty sure.”