WASHINGTON—Five years ago, the Blackhawks could have walked into a White Castle with their uniforms on and not been recognized. On Friday, they were honored at the White House. What a difference a bold plan, a real organization, and a Stanley Cup can make.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001 and was the primary writer of "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions.
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President Barack Obama, the most powerful man on the planet, exercised executive privilege and took a breather from worldly concerns—earthquake in Japan, unemployment in the United States, a roiled landscape in Libya—to salute the National Hockey League’s champions. He eagerly drew on his Chicago pedigree, mentioning how sweet it is to celebrate a title for a team in a hometown with such a sparse trophy case, and when the President’s own Marine Corps band played “Here Come the Hawks” on the South Lawn, Rocky Wirtz’ smile served as ersatz sunlight on a gray, chilly afternoon.
“The White Sox were the last Chicago team to come here in 2005, after they won the World Series,” noted the Blackhawks’ chairman. “If you had said that we would be next, what would the odds have been? Could you have even gotten a bet down? That makes this all even better.”
The Blackhawks brass, as usual, cut no corners on this historic trip. They hired a charter plane to fly friends and families to the nation’s capital, along with several members of the front office. Invitees included two players from last year’s roster who have moved on—Brent Sopel, here on a day pass from the Montreal Canadiens, and Cristobal Huet, who came all the way from Zurich, Switzerland, because, as he said without needing to finish his sentence, “It isn’t every day…”.
Players and members of upper management were given an extended tour of the White House, followed by a meeting with Obama, who greeted each individual and chatted with them as if he were a season ticketholder.
“He had all the names down, amazing,” offered Blackhawks President John McDonough, who called the day "a highlight in my life.”
Shortly thereafter, all ring-bearers from the 2010 squad took their places on platform risers for the official ceremony, during which the President cited coach Joel Quenneville for his leadership, Jonathan Toews for earning playoffs MVP, Patrick Kane for his postseason mullet and Duncan Keith for his devotion to duty after shedding seven teeth.
Obama wished every Chicago franchise well, even the Cubs whom he left for last because he does, after all, proudly wear a White Sox cap whenever possible. McDonough presented Obama with a scarlet Blackhawks sweater bearing “Obama 44” on the back for the 44th President of the United States. Obama also received a replica Stanley Cup. The real silver jug was beside the podium, and he quipped about his gift, “I thought it looked bigger on TV.” When he sampled a Stanley Cup ring for size, Obama observed, “That’s what you call some bling right there.”
The President seemed totally immersed and engaged in the moment, a trait not lost on the guests who were at once humbled by the occasion and impressed by how comfortable they felt in Obama’s presence. Early returns were that Obama seemed as glad to have the Blackhawks hanging out in his backyard as they were delighted to be there. “Very charismatic,” praised Kane.
McDonough and Executive Vice President Jay Blunk, prime movers in Chicago’s hockey renaissance after coming over from baseball, were stumped when a bystander posed a somewhat rhetorical question—“Did the Cubs visit the White House when they won their last World Series in 1908?”—but McDonough was adamant about one matter. He always has a to-do list, and the latest project is cast in stone. “We have to get President Obama to a game at the United Center,” he said.
When the President adjourned to return to reality, the First Lady, Michelle Obama, took over. All the current Blackhawks donned jerseys to partake in the “Let’s Move!” initiative that featured street hockey with youngsters practicing different skills beside the pros. The Obama administration is decidedly pro-active about exercise. This White House has been described as the sweatiest ever, and sedentary souls are anathema to Obama and the First Lady, fitness buffs both. Cornell McClellan, a Chicago trainer, is the man behind all the President’s men and women who report to the gym.
Before departing, President Obama strongly implied that the Blackhawks need not wait another 49 years before winning another Stanley Cup. In fact, he suggested that a repeat performance would be quite nice. Coach Q had to love that. His charges are engaged in a taut race for a playoff berth, the Western Conference is loaded, and the end of the regular schedule is near.
But if Blackhawk players needed a reminder about how special it is to be the best in class, two days in Washington were motivating with nary an opponent in sight. On Thursday, the team ventured to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. If the athletes thought they were there to offer encouragement, they instead gleaned a crash course in spirit from wounded soldiers—too many of them twentysomethings just like Toews and Kane—who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not their love of life and country. Real heroes didn’t visit Walter Reed on Thursday. Real heroes were visited.
Yet, upon the dawn of a new day, they were welcomed as icons by the President of the United States, who shook their hands and congratulated them on a job well done and treated them with reverence. The juxtaposition of the twin tours was remarkable. The Blackhawks went to Walter Reed to thank strangers for what they’ve done and the sacrifices they have made. The Blackhawks went to the White House and were put on pedestals behind Barack Obama, who praised them to the hilt and called for another parade in June.
“We had more media at the White House than we used to have at games,” concluded Rocky Wirtz. “Heck, we had a bigger crowd here than we used to have at games. I don’t know how you can top this.”