WASHINGTON — As Lightning players and staff walked off the risers in the White House’s South Lawn on Monday afternoon, a band played “We Are the Champions.”
The defending back-to-back Cup champions thought their bucket-list visit was over.
But, turns out, President Joe Biden had one last surprise.
The Lightning were just happy to be here, finally, after the NHL lockout prevented the ’04 team from experiencing this rite of passage and the pandemic delayed this into a combined celebration of the 2020 and 2021 teams on the final off day of the regular season.
“It was worth the wait,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “That was one of the highlights of a lot of our lives.”
There were the usual scripted speeches and photo ops. Biden had joked about Stamkos getting older. “I need some advice from Steven,” the 79-year-old Biden cracked. After the formal ceremony, the gifts (Tampa Bay gave Biden a No. 46 jersey and an engraved silver stick), the Tampa Bay traveling party shuffled off the stage and figured they were headed for the bus to the airport.
That’s when Biden turned to Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and the players:
“Come on guys, follow me.”
The group, with Stamkos still holding the Stanley Cup, followed Biden through the West Wing and into the Oval Office. It was an unexpected pit stop that lasted 10 to 15 minutes, but anyone there will talk about it for the rest of their lives. These intimate moments, just the president and the team, are why champions in any sport — no matter what country they’re from — dream about this White House visit.
Here was Vinik strolling to the Resolute Desk, where the most powerful man in the world works, and Biden telling him, “Have a seat,” which Vinik did. “I didn’t put my feet on it,” Vinik said, laughing. “A moment was enough.” All the Lightning players were in there — including recently traded Mathieu Joseph and retired Curtis McElhinney and Braydon Coburn — soaking up the moment. They noticed how the room seemed smaller than it was on TV or in the movies. They appreciated the history and the art, which included portraits of former presidents Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. They were struck by Biden’s sense of humor, as he talked about his athletic career playing football at the University of Delaware.
Then Biden approached Pat Maroon, who was wearing his heart-shaped, white cowboy hat made of beaver fur.
“Mind if I give that a try?” Biden asked.
So Biden took the hat and put it on his head and smiled.
“He looked pretty good,” Joseph said. “Surprised it fit, considering the size of ‘Big Rig’s’ head!”
“He looked a hell of a lot better than Patty does,” Vinik joked over the phone before flying home. “It was almost meant for him.”
Maroon has won the Stanley Cup in three straight seasons but missed out on his last opportunity to go to the White House with the Blues after their 2019 title.
He was at home in Tampa watching it on TV. And he was bummed.
“When you get to the NHL, you always want to see the White House, right?” said Maroon, a St. Louis native. “As a kid, you talk about it, you learn about the history behind all the presidents. You’ve got to name them all. For me, it’s history. Going to the White House and meeting the president, it doesn’t matter who is in office — it’s pretty cool.”
The tradition of sports teams going to the White House goes back to at least Aug. 30, 1865, when then-President Andrew Johnson brought in the Brooklyn Atlantics and Washington Nationals amateur baseball teams. It’s believed that Ronald Reagan made the idea of honoring championship teams at the White House a regular feature.
Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, who has won the Stanley Cup 14 times as a player, coach or executive, said each of his handful of visits to the White House was special. He went there during both Bush presidencies and one apiece with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He’ll never forget showing up early to the Rose Garden and seeing Clinton — in casual slacks and a polo — playing with his dog. Or when a Canadian-born player on the 2010 Blackhawks asked Obama to help with his green card.
“I mean, not a lot of people get that invite,” Bowman said.
The ’04 Lightning didn’t get their chance due to the ensuing NHL lockout, though captain Dave Andreychuk and a few staff members visited President George W. Bush in his Dallas office in 2018, finally giving him his ’04 jersey. The current players talked as a group and wanted to make sure this visit happened, with everyone from Canadians to Russians like Andrei Vasilevskiy pumped for the opportunity. As wing Brandon Hagel, from the tiny town of Morinville, Alberta, put it, ‘The White House is the White House. Everyone has that dream to go. How many people get to do that? Not many. Only winners do.”
“It doesn’t really matter where you’re from,” Cooper said. “You say ‘The White House’ and everyone from most countries knows what you’re talking about. It’s a historic moment for our franchise to get the invite.”
The Lightning, the NHL and the White House have been talking about this potential visit since the beginning of the season in October, according to Brian Breseman, the team’s senior director of broadcasting, programming and communications. The common sense dates were around the two scheduled games against the Capitals in Washington — Oct. 16 and April 6 — but neither worked out with scheduling, so you look at different options.
“You look at when you’re in the area, can you fly in on your way?” Breseman said. “If you’re in Philadelphia, can you train over?”
Breseman was primarily the Lightning liaison, along with assistant GM Mathieu Darche, and the White House point person was Trey Baker, the senior advisor for public engagement. Creative Arts Agency’s Tyrone Bland also helped out a lot. The White House has been trying to reschedule visits for championship teams that won during the pandemic. They discussed trying a date in the offseason for the Lightning, but the White House wasn’t as interested in that. Eventually, the two sides decided on Monday, the last off day of the regular season, when the Lightning flew in Sunday night from Sunrise, Fla. — after beating the Panthers 8-3 — and then returned to Tampa late Monday afternoon.
“The White House has a lot going on, a lot bigger fish to fry than the Lightning making a visit,” Breseman said. “So we’re very appreciative of the president and his staff for finding time for us.”
McElhinney was in the middle of a family vacation in New Mexico last week when he got the call that the Lightning were going to the White House.
They cut the trip short so McElhinney could get back home in Steamboat Springs, Colo. and make arrangements for the cross-country flight in.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.
McElhinney and the rest of the Lightning started the day with a rehearsal for the upcoming ceremony and speech. They then got a one-hour tour through the State floor, with players marveling at all the works of art and paintings on the wall. Coburn pointed out that he used to live close to Independence Hall, which was represented in a painting in one of the rooms. They were served appetizers — slider-type sandwiches — along with trays of drinks and sweets.
“Those were gone pretty quickly when they were around me,” McElhinney said.
Joseph remembered a painting from 1757, which a White House employee pointed out was one of the only ones to survive a large fire. Joseph and his family had driven through D.C. on their way from Quebec to South Florida for the 2015 NHL Draft. They spent three days in the capital, checking out the monuments, landmarks and, of course, the White House.
“And a couple years later, I’m invited here,” Joseph said. “It’s pretty remarkable. A great experience. I felt like a little kid at a museum.”
GM Julien BriseBois said that, three years ago, he was given a private tour with a guide who filled him in on the history of each room and each artifact. So BriseBois spent most of his time Monday trying to share that experience with as many people as possible.
“What struck me the most was how all the White House staff and the servicemen and women on-site went out of their way to make this a great experience for our group,” BriseBois texted Monday night. “They certainly exceeded.”
“They treated us like royalty,” Vinik said.
The team had a grand entrance, splitting into groups of two and walking down the circular stairway from the back of the White House to the risers down below. There was a large group of representatives from Tampa, whether that be other team employees, family members (Vinik’s kids were all there) or dignitaries, including former St. Pete mayor Rick Kriseman, former Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn and current Tampa mayor Jane Castor. The sprawling South Lawn was green and freshly mowed, with the Washington Monument in clear view. A band, in red and white uniforms, played a number of hits, from Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel” to Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”
Then came “Hail to the Chief” with Biden’s arrival. His speech, including a few one-liners, focused on the Lightning’s accomplishments — which, combined with the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl and Rays’ World Series appearance, caught the president’s attention.
“I don’t know what the hell you have in the water down there,” Biden quipped.
Biden talked about the Lightning’s unique journey of winning their first Cup in the “bubble,” spending 65 days sequestered in Canadian hotels due to the pandemic. He brought up leaders like Stamkos, who is having a career-type season at age 32.
“Steve? 14 seasons. You’re getting old, man.”
“I am,” Stamkos said, smiling.
Vinik got to make a speech, where he invited Biden to the next boat parade and said he’d break his rule of not talking in his suite during Lightning games if the president came to town.
“Hopefully we’ll be back here again,” Vinik said. “We’ve already been invited.”
Stamkos was initially expected to speak for the team, but he deferred to Ryan McDonagh, one of the few American-born players on the Lightning roster. McDonagh said he found out a few days ago he’d be speaking and was honored, hoping to just offer a glimpse into their journey and what was ahead. “The quest for a third Cup is not out of reach,” McDonagh said.
“As an American and someone who hails from St. Paul, Minn., I never thought I’d be standing up in the White House next to you,” McDonagh said. “It’s been a surreal experience, something that I think all of us will remember for a long time.”
Cooper, Stamkos and McDonagh brought both of their Stanley Cup rings for the trip, one of the rare occasions where they’d wear them (Stamkos said he’s only worn them the days he received them, during his Cup party over the summer and on Monday). “When you see them on, including the president, they want to take a look,” Cooper said.
Cooper stood in the Oval Office a bit starstruck, trying to put it all in perspective.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “I think it’s hard to explain, because you see everything in movies or it’s still photographs, and to actually be in there for that five minutes or whatever it was, I’ll never forget that image. It’s just a part of American history and everything that’s gone on in that room and you’re standing there with the President of the United States, that’s a check off the bucket list.”
The timing of this trip could be fortuitous as well, one week from the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs and their quest for a historic three-peat. Tampa Bay has won three straight games over three playoff teams, and being back together at the White House “heightens the excitement” for the challenge ahead, McDonagh said.
“Who knows?” Biden said. “You may be back next year.”
(Top photo of President Joe Biden honoring the 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup champion Lightning at the White House: Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)