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Verdict: Blackhawks, President Obama meet for a third time

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
(Chase Agnello-Dean / Chicago Blackhawks)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—For any sports fan, even the most powerful man on the planet, it’s always about the parking. So little wonder that President Barack Obama was ecstatic Thursday when handed a parking pass to the United Center by Rocky Wirtz, chairman of the Blackhawks.

“Lifetime, all events, not just hockey,” Wirtz said. “We even doctored it up to print the Presidential seal on there. We tried to think of something different.”

After all, the defending Stanley Cup champions were being honored at the White House for the third time by this same president—a feat shared by the San Francisco Giants—so when Obama burst into the State Dining Room shortly after 11 in the morning, he greeted the assembled Blackhawk players and staff as old friends, familiar faces just dropping by again.

Obama declared the parking pass to be the greatest gift he’d ever received, and the Blackhawks seemed just as giddy to be back in the nation’s capital. Despite short sleep—they didn’t arrive at their hotel until 3:30 a.m. after their victory in Madison Square Garden—the boys of winter cleaned up nicely and appeared quite comfortable. Niklas Hjalmarsson looked right at home relaxing on a couch below a picture of John Tyler, America’s 10th president.

“I come from a town in Sweden of 80,” the star defenseman said. “More cows than people. And here I am in the White House for the third time in six years.”

At a private gathering, where Obama was bequeathed an original painting, he exchanged handshakes with each member of the group. Then everybody moved to the East Room for the official ceremony, during which Obama completed his haul—an authentic red jersey and a replica Stanley Cup from President and CEO John McDonough—while citing a few special individuals on the stage behind.

Obama saluted Joel Quenneville for becoming the second-winningest coach in National Hockey League history and Mark Kelley, the Blackhawks’ vice president of amateur scouting, for harvesting so much talent year after year. Perhaps, postulated Obama, he might lean on Kelley to fill that vacant seat on the Supreme Court.

The President then turned to Kimmo Timonen, who joined the team late last season and timed it just right. Punctuating a stellar career, he made a cameo appearance with the Blackhawks, won his first Cup and retired happily ever after.

“I almost cried up there,” said Timonen, who hopped a train from Philadelphia. “For the Blackhawks to treat me the way they did, even after such a short time, you see why they are winners. They just do everything with such class.”

Obama also singled out Scott Darling, the backup goalie who recently befriended a complete stranger in Arizona, put him up in a hotel for a month and bought him groceries. Pure American largesse, praised the President.

“I thought I was going to go down and faint,” allowed Darling. “That would have made for a nice video, huh?”

According to Hall of Fame writer Sam Smith, the Bulls made only two “official” White House stops—after their first NBA championship in 1991 and their fifth in 1997. Those storied Bulls authored a pair of three-peats, but perhaps they didn’t venture to the nation’s capital for all six on the chance that they would incur a residency tax. The Blackhawks appear unconcerned about such a possibility, although one curmudgeon in Thursday’s gallery speculated that they spend more time in the District of Columbia than certain politicians who are elected to be there.

At Obama’s behest, the Super Bowl XX Bears finally made it to the White House in 2011. Shortly after they thrashed the New England Patriots 46-10 on Jan. 26, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded, claiming seven lives. Appropriately, President Ronald Reagan cancelled a celebration of football and addressed a country in mourning.

Obama was not occupying the White House when his beloved White Sox won the 2005 World Series. But soon after he took office, he brought the White Sox to his domain in 2009. As an Illinois senator, Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship Series at U.S. Cellular Field.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had won the opener in the best-of-seven tournament, but following Obama’s toss, the White Sox ran the table. They swept the next four games against the Angels, then took four straight from the Houston Astros to claim their first championship since 1917.

Obama is not bashful about his loyalty to Chicago teams. When the defending champion Golden State Warriors called on the White House recently, he cited a guest who was “on the greatest NBA team ever”—Warriors coach Steve Kerr, an important part of the 72-10 Bulls in 1996-97.

Obama plays basketball and golf when time permits, extending a tradition of chief executives who love sports. Dwight Eisenhower was addicted to golf; he had a tree named after him at Augusta National, home of the Masters. Gerald Ford was a college football star at Michigan. John Kennedy loved the outdoors and was a better golfer than he let on. When Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, Richard Nixon was invited, but he declined to play golf with Ike. Nixon felt more comfortable, however, at the White House bowling alley.

“This never gets old,” said captain Jonathan Toews as the Blackhawks bounced from room to room in the White House without requiring prompting or tour guides. “It’s shouldn’t, should it?”

Obama expressed pride in the Blackhawks and how their dynasty has coincided with his terms as president. After all, before 2010, their last Stanley Cup was in 1961. Wishfully, he did leave open the possibility that the Blackhawks could squeeze in a fourth title before he vacates the Oval Office.

In a brief conversation, Quenneville suggested that the President come to a game at the United Center. Obama sounded ready. For sure, he took Rocky’s present and jammed it in his jacket pocket before returning to work. It’s always about parking.

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