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Penguins celebrated at White House ceremony

by Adam Kimelman
WASHINGTON -- About 10 years ago, when he was playing for the Los Angeles Kings, Dan Bylsma and some teammates had some extra time in town and decided to take a tour of the White House.

On Thursday, he got another chance to see the place, but under entirely different circumstances.

Bylsma and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization were the guests of honor at a White House celebration for them winning the 2009 Stanley Cup.

Their day involved a guided tour of the White House, followed by a press conference in the East Room, hosted by President Barack Obama.

Most of the President's day is spent managing all manners of crises, from health care to the state of the economy to defending the country.

Taking time to meet with a hockey team, well, as Obama himself said, "This is by far the most fun thing that I'm doing today."

The Penguins also had a great deal of fun, especially Evgeni Malkin, who waved and smiled broadly from the risers, and at one point pulled out his cell phone to take a picture of Obama from behind. The resulting laughter even gave the president pause.

"I think that's par for the course with Geno (Malkin)," said Bylsma. "I can't wait to see how that picture looks."

Along with Malkin and the rest of the team, standing on the risers were owner Mario Lemieux, team president David Morehouse and GM Ray Shero.
Bylsma, meanwhile, stood next to Obama at the podium.

A spot mere inches from the most powerful man in the free world is a long way from where Bylsma was just seven months ago, when he was coaching the Penguins' American Hockey League team.

"I don't know where I would have started out a year ago that would have made this seem like it wasn't a huge deal," said Bylsma. "I was standing right there next to the microphone at the podium and listening to him speak, it falls in line with the pinch-me storyline. It's certainly a long way (and) it is an indication that in a year's time a lot can happen."

Obama made sure to single out a few members of the team during his speech, starting with Lemieux, who made similar visits as a player in 1991 and '92.

"Having Mario Lemieux here is a pretty big deal," said Obama. "He won a couple of these trophies as a player, but this is his first as an owner -- and he's still got a big smile on his face, so I guess it feels pretty good this way, too."

Obama also made special note of Sidney Crosby becoming the youngest player to captain a team to a Stanley Cup, and Malkin for being the third-youngest ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

After congratulating Crosby, the president got a little shot in at the Penguins' captain, saying, "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."

"He's high in all our books," Bylsma said of the president. "He gave Sidney some grief so he's high in everyone else's book."

Obama also made special mention of Willie O'Ree, the head of the NHL's diversity program and the first black man to play in the League. O'Ree, along with Crosby, Bill Guerin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and Marc-Andre Fleury, ran a clinic at the Fort Dupont Ice Rink earlier Thursday morning. Fort Dupont hosts the nation's oldest minority hockey program, and players from the Fort Dupont house team, it's beginner's skating program and the Hockey in the Hood program from Pittsburgh were on hand at the White House for the ceremony.

"I want to thank Willie O'Ree for joining us," said Obama. "Willie is a hockey pioneer in his own right who has worked tirelessly to make sure kids from every background can learn the lessons that hockey has to offer. So we are grateful to you, sir."

The Penguins presented Obama with a black No. 44 Penguins jersey with the captain's C stitched on it. The president held it proudly for pictures, then made mention of one other honored guest in the room -- the Stanley Cup.

"We've had a lot of championship teams visit the White House -- I've seen a lot of trophies -- (but) there is something special about the Stanley Cup," said Obama. "Winning this trophy takes a whole new level of sacrifice. It takes a group of players who can persevere through injuries and pain and setbacks and seven-game series. Above all, it takes a team that is willing to stick together, because nobody wins the Stanley Cup on their own."

Obama then related that sacrifice and selflessness to the national service project he's helped create, the United We Serve program.

"Service is a way of life for these players back in Pittsburgh," said Obama. "Earlier today, Willie and the guys put on a clinic for kids here at Fort Dupont as part of our United We Serve summer of service. And besides teaching the kids a few moves, they stressed the importance of staying in school and leading active and healthy lifestyles. … That's what the Stanley Cup is all about -- not just having your names engraved alongside the best players in history, but also giving back to others along the way. And this spirit of service helps to strengthen our communities, it strengthens our country -- and I know this team gets a lot in return for it as well."

The members of the Penguins organization also got a great deal out of their day at the White House.

"There's not many places in the United States that you really feel a deep sense of history," said Bylsma, "and today you're amongst it. You're reaching out and touching it, from what else happened in the rooms today, to meeting the president, it's a really unique feel about history and the things you learn from a textbook, and now you're standing in a place where a lot of that history took place. From my standpoint, that's one you don't really get too often."

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