September 11, 2009
WASHINGTON, DC -- Visiting the White House is a special occasion. Being there because of hockey is even better. Having President Barack Obama speaking about hockey is the best.
President Obama came prepared, unlike President George H.W. Bush was 18 years ago. The 1990-1991 Pittsburgh Penguins visited the White House, but President George H.W. Bush's "and you are?" question to Mario Lemieux is still something a lot of fans remember unhappily. (Correction: The 1990-91 Penguins were not the first Cup team to visit the White House, as was previously stated; the New York Islanders visited the Reagan White House at least once after one of their wins.)
Media, gathered close to the West Wing, were waiting for President Obama's meeting with members of the Congress to be over. Some of the staffers wondered what all these other people doing there talking about hockey.
As I chatted with ESPN's EJ Hradek on the footsteps of the White House, a Secret Service agent recognized him and approached to talk some hockey. It turned out that the Secret Service agent was from Florida, and he was a huge Florida Panthers fan.
But most of all, he was a Barry Melrose fan.
EJ decided to help the Secret Service fan and dialed Melrose's number only to reach his voicemail. The Secret Service agent didn't mind. He just left a message: "Barry, I am huge fan. I love the mullet!"
I asked the agent if hockey is ever on TV at the White House. He said: "President is a baseball and basketball fan."
President Obama later hinted to Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma that the Chicago Blackhawks better get their act together. "I was complaining about this -- it's been a while since Chicago won anything, Coach. And I'm not happy about that."
Right around 6 p.m., the media was invited into the East Room of the White House. Inside the White House guests chatted and smiled listening to live piano. Pennsylvania Senators Arlen Specter and Bob Casey were in attendance. They were seated in the first row. But they did have to move a bit to make room for... the Penguins' Web guy.
It took a quite few "shushes" and "we-will-begin-shortly" announcements until the Pittsburgh Penguins made their way into the East Room. As it turned out, they were given a tour of the White House that Bill Guerin(notes) noted was "bigger [than the last time he was at the White House]. We saw a lot more rooms and it was more open than the last time."
I don't know if he thought the ceremony would be broadcast in Russia.
Finally, President Obama entered the room greeted by cheers, a standing ovation and sounds of hundreds of electronic shutters. "First of all, I'm sorry to keep you guys waiting -- I have all these things I've got to do as President," Obama opened the ceremony. "This is by far the most fun thing that I'm doing today. So welcome to the White House. We are extraordinarily pleased to have the world champion Pittsburgh Penguins with their third Stanley Cup." The East Room at this point drowned in applause.
As I mentioned, senators and representatives from Pennsylvania were in attendance, although President Obama was puzzled not to see Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. "Where's Luke? Where's the mayor -- I thought he was around here. Well, he should be," Obama noted.
After President Obama acknowledged Alexander Ovechkin(notes) in his speech in Russia earlier this year, it was time for the President to may respect to the Penguins. "This team would not be here without two of its youngest members. So first of all, I want to congratulate Sidney Crosby(notes) on becoming the youngest captain in history to win the Stanley Cup. And Evgeni Malkin for being the third-youngest player ever to be named playoff MVP," Obama said.
Malkin, in the meantime, had his cell phone out trying to snap a picture of the President. After numerous failed attempts, because the President was standing with his back to Geno, Malkin finally got the picture and started emailing it to someone right away. Brooks Orpik(notes), standing next to Malkin, seemed to enjoy it too.
"I think that's par for the course with Geno," Dan Bylsma said afterwards. "I can't wait to see how that picture looks."
Sidney Crosby was standing behind President Obama with a Penguins' jersey in his hand with a No. 44 and "OBAMA" on the back and a "C" on the front.
Coach Bylsma said: "On behalf of all the people in our organization, but especially the players behind me, we'd like to present you with a jersey -- our captain, Sidney."
Before excited President Obama interrupted him and said: "This is what I'm talking about."
Apparently, Brooks Orpik didn't know that his number was given away. "I didn't know about it until today. All the guys joked around that I must have gotten traded. Hopefully, that's not the reason why, but it was pretty cool," Orpik told the media after the ceremony.
And Crosby's "C" given to the President? "Brooks will have to change his number now. And I don't know what's going to happen now [to me]. Hopefully, I can get it back."
After Sidney Crosby presented the jersey, President Obama got his hands on the Stanley Cup, even though he did not raise it. "Can I just make one more point? Sidney must be really fast because there are some big hockey players -- and he's not one of them. But you know he's got some speed and some skill. Thank you everybody, we are thrilled -- can we get a picture with the Cup in the background here?" And they did.
Coach Bylsma later joked about President Obama's comment about Crosby: "Sidney is going to have to deal with getting a shot about his height, but also about getting his 'C' as well. [President Obama] gave Sidney some grief so he's high in everyone else's book."
President Obama also praised the Penguins for their efforts earlier on Thursday when they teamed up with Willie O'Ree, who was also in attendance. They put on a clinic for kids in Washington DC at Fort Dupont as part of the United We Serve summer of service.
As I was getting ready to leave, I noticed Reggie Love, who serves as the special assistant and personal aide to President Obama, in the West Wing with the Obama Penguins jersey. It was the same jersey that was given to the President just a few minutes before.
Wouldn't it be nice to have the President follow hockey as much as he follows baseball and basketball? Fan No. 1 will be welcome at any arena.
"It would be great to get him out. It would be great to have him at center ice dropping the puck," Coach Bylsma said.
There is no reason why this shouldn't happen this season.