"Game 5 of the Final, you were just 34 seconds from raising the Cup, when the Pittsburgh Penguins scored to tie the game and then scored in triple overtime to extend the series," Bush told a standing-room only crowd in the East Room. "But you did not get discouraged, you were determined and you won; and we congratulate you for winning a very hard Cup to win."
Detroit did come back, winning Game 6 in Pittsburgh, to claim its fourth Stanley Cup in 11 years in early June. Tuesday, they were honored for that feat by a president who has fought his own battles and experienced his own hardships during an eight-year term that is coming to a close with next month's presidential election.
"The Detroit Red Wings were the first NHL team that I welcomed to a Stanley Cup ceremony and now they'll be the last team I'll be hosting," Bush said. "You guys may be back next year, but not me."
That remark – and many others – drew laughs from the crowd and the players, who were arrayed behind the president and the Stanley Cup as Bush delivered his remarks.
In his speech, Bush singled out some of the players on this championship team that made the difference as the Red Wings eliminated Nashville, Colorado, Dallas and Pittsburgh in successive rounds.
"It takes four rounds of the playoffs – 16 wins in as many as 28 games - and these players were up to that grueling test and set some impressive records along the way."
First, he talked about goal-scoring hero Johan Franzen, who scored 13 goals in 16 playoff games, noting that Franzen's nickname is "The Mule."
"I call him sir," Bush said.
Then he talked about veteran Kris Draper, the heart and soul among Detroit's forwards.
"Kris Draper, he set an unofficial record of sorts," Bush said. "He is the first player to score a playoff goal with his teeth."
"Those are beauties," Bush said.
Afterward, Draper still was enjoying the unexpected spotlight the president had directed his way, telling reporters all about the shot from teammate Dallas Drake that banged off three of Draper's bottom teeth before going past Dallas goalie Marty Turco in the Western Conference Finals.
"I'm sure my dentist is proud of it," Draper said of the most famous teeth in hockey.
"When he mentioned my name, I absolutely froze – just hearing the president of the United States saying my full name, Kris Draper, and I wasn't sure where he was headed and then he's talking about my teeth scoring a goal and then he's asking me to give him a smile. That was fun and just a huge honor to be in that situation and those circumstances where the president has mentioned my name. It's something I'll never forget."
After honoring American-born defenseman Chris Chelios for his longevity and the fact that, at 46, he was the second-oldest player ever to appear in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Bush moved on to the main message he hoped the crowd would take from this speech, using fourth-liner Darren McCarty as the delivery vehicle.
McCarty was one of the feel-good stories of the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs, after he persevered in his battle with alcoholism to restart his hockey career after a year away from the game and make it back to the Red Wings in time for the 2008 playoffs.
McCarty played in 17 postseason games, scoring a goal and adding an assist during a spring that delivered him his fourth Stanley Cup, all with Detroit.
"Darren played 11 seasons with the Red Wings between 1994 and 2004," Bush said. "Then he had a problem – he drank too much – and it brought his career to an early end. But Darren McCarty did not give up; Darren McCarty decided to do something about it."
Bush then detailed McCarty's call to Draper to get his career restarted, the stops in the minor-league outposts of Flint, Mich., and Grand Rapids, Mich., before rejoining Detroit in March.
"This guy put his life back together, seized the moment and scored the opening goal of Game 2 in the series against Nashville," Bush said. "That is a stout story."
A story that hit a resounding note with the crowd as a clearly moved McCarty was afforded an ovation that rivaled the one the president received upon entering the East Room.
"I got choked up," said McCarty, who hopes Bush's telling of his tale of addiction and recovery helps others move forward in the face of their own problems. "To be a part of this day, to be at the White House and to be called out by the president, it sort of reiterates that the path I am on is the right one.
"As a human being, you look for reassurance, some sort of pat on the back, and when the president of the United States gives you one, it can't get much better than that."
This whole day could not have been much better for the Red Wings.
Nicklas Lidstrom, the Red Wings captain, gave Bush a pair of Red Wing jerseys and Chelios handed the president a miniature Stanley Cup. The jerseys were No. 41 for George H. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, and No. 43 for the current president. He also invited the presidential father and son duo to join the Red Wings on their father-son trip later this season.
Lidstrom, along with a few teammates, also got the opportunity to meet with Bush before the ceremony.
"He asked a little bit about our personal lives and it was just neat to have a little one-on-one with the guys that were in the room," Lidstrom said.
McCarty also was impressed with the people skills of the Commander in Chief.
"He's such a personable guy and he made a lot of us feel very welcome by his speech," said McCarty. "We're all excited to be here and it is a great honor just to be a part of it."