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Exiled street-hockey players from around the city have made Pennsylvania Avenue their home. Are they about to be ejected again?

Tourists buzz in front of the wrought-iron gates of the White House on an October Saturday, craning their necks for a glimpse of anything notable. The First Lawn gets a bath from dozens of hidden spigots, and leaves scamper across Pennsylvania Avenue. Cyclists, fresh from traffic, hug the curbs as they whiz through the empty thoroughfare. Everyone, it seems, is hungry for a picture. Is that the presidential bedroom? Click. Where’s the Oval Office? Click. Want a picture with a cardboard cutout of the First Couple? That’ll be four bucks.

And how about a shot of a sweaty hockey player? That’s free—and remarkably easy to come by.

Five years after President Bill Clinton closed Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th Streets NW, roller hockey has become the predominant street activity in front of the White House. Sure, the Secret Service still drives around the sequestered patch of asphalt, and every now and then a protest rolls by. But, by and large, pedestrians stick to the sidewalk, and the street belongs to the sportsmen.

Hockey players wearing in-line skates zoom from one set of concrete barricades to the other just about every holiday and weekend. They show up at all hours of the weekday, too: during lunch breaks, after work, even in the middle of the night.

What began as a security measure in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing has turned this two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue into the unlikeliest of public parks. Ilia Serebremmikov usually shows up early for a Saturday-morning game. A relative newcomer to the sport who’s been on skates for less than a year, he plays with a group of Russians every Saturday before a regular noontime pickup game gets under way. Once on the street, he dons the red-blue-and-white jersey of the Russian national team and caps his head with a bandanna instead of a helmet. “We started out in Virginia, playing in the parking lot of the SAIC building until we got kicked out of there,” he explains.

He’s not the only player exiled from less hospitable zones. About 50 yards down the street, closer to the White House, Sean Ryan skates freely—fresh from his expulsion from the George Washington University Department of Religion parking lot. Pennsylvania Avenue is the perfect location to play, explains Jon Blumberg, another GWU freshman: It’s a huge, empty lot, where the cops are always present but never make you leave. Blumberg himself was forced to move his game from the hallways of a GWU dorm after hockey was banned in the residence halls. But that’s OK with him. “We seem to lose balls easier in our hall,” he says. “They go into rooms, and we have no idea where they go.”

Now, though, the teams of roller-hockey players fear that their small slice of paradise will disappear—and send them back to playing in deserted lots. In September, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton—along with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), Mayor Anthony A. Williams, and the Federal City Council—started a campaign to persuade President Clinton to rethink the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Clinton has yet to make a move concerning the avenue, but both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have said they will review proposals to reopen the street once in office.

The latest plans for reopening Pennsylvania Avenue include constructing pedestrian footbridges low enough to prevent trucks from passing underneath but high enough to allow cars to travel freely. There has also been talk of narrowing the avenue, increasing electronic surveillance, and instituting time-of-day restrictions.

In the meantime, Blumberg’s got some big ideas for this place. He envisions a hockey league, biweekly clinics, intercollegiate tournaments, and a Web site dedicated solely to the games here. He’ll do it himself, he says. He’s done it before. Six years ago, he started a league at the Jewish Community Center in Baltimore, which “grew from about 60 to 70 people the first year to, I think, 280 people this year.” For Blumberg, this asphalt is all about potential. “I hope to get a [league] started for at least the college-based level,” he says.

Doug Harmon rests after a game, leaning against the short granite walls guarding Blair House. He wears the standard street-hockey uniform of black nylon skate pants and a white T-shirt. On most pairs of pants, the shins are tattered from a lifetime of spills and friction. Players also usually wear protection of some kind—a few arm pads, a helmet, a protective cup over jeans. Scrapes and bruises are common, as are the doughnut-shaped welts left by the speeding plastic balls. Fortunately, hockey tape makes a great bandage.

At night, the pedestrians disappear. But the game goes on. Local computer technicians Nick Durbin and Carson Evans sometimes use glow-in-the-dark balls to play from midnight until 3 or 4 in the morning. They share the empty street with the Secret Service. “We had one cop, one night,” says Evans, “turn on his lights for us so we could play, and every time we’d score a goal, he’d flip his siren.”

Most games, however, are limited to the daylight hours, when players can revel in the open space. They bring their hallmates from school, their dogs from home, and their mates to watch. It’s an arena, a hangout, and a playground all at once. Until Secret Service agents cut through in their truck.

“Car!” shouts a lookout, easing back on his skates. The game halts immediately. The players closest to the ball freeze, maintaining relative distance from the puck. The truck moves through. “Game on!” the sentry announces, and the players jump back to life. Goals are scored by shooting through the space between two bags, or two water bottles, at a shoe, or whatever’s most handy.

Thomas Briggs, a player since 1995 and independent candidate for the D.C. Council in Ward 2, points at the spired iron gate surrounding the Old Executive Office Building. It’s known to hockey players as “the black hole of Pennsylvania Avenue,” because anything that passes beyond it disappears from reach. Only police and Secret Service agents have access to the interior grounds of the surrounding buildings, and the Secret Service enforces the rule well. The players try hard to keep their equipment clear of that area.

Rumor has it that the Secret Service holds the Holy Grail of Street Hockey, a huge bin full of refugee balls, which the players hope to one day recover. Until then, balls that cross into no man’s land are written off as lost, and the players make sure to bring extras. Sometimes, though, if a major piece of equipment flies onto the White House lawn, an understanding Secret Service agent may lend a hand to retrieve it.

Jim Mackin, spokesperson for the Secret Service, says that the hockey players don’t pose a security threat. “Currently, our only issues are in the event of an emergency, allowing for emergency-equipment access in or out of the White House. And so far, that’s not been a problem.”

If the street does reopen, it’ll break a lot of hearts. Mike Pierce, another GWU freshman, motions to the older group of players from his crew of students. “These guys have gotten a tradition going on here,” he says. “We’re all freshmen, and we’d like to take advantage of that tradition.”

The players joke about protesting if the avenue does reopen, suggesting 24-hour marathon games and a refusal to leave the street by playing in the median, despite traffic. A few players nod at the suggestion of a petition, but most seem resigned.

Regulars involved in the White House street games have seen it all, from bomb-sniffing robots—when a tourist left a bookbag on the White House fence—to true hockey love. Soo Bang, now a health care consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers, met her current husband playing hockey in front of the White House.

Those still chasing down passes and trying to squeak in one last goal before it’s time to go home know how lucky they are to have this place where anyone can play, anytime.

“A lot of people have said it’s like a statement of America, the fact that you have that freedom to be able to do something like that,” says Briggs. “That’s the message that we want to give in the capital of the United States.” CP