skate of the union

Hockey players don’t live at the White House, but they sometimes pay a visit, as the Boston Bruins did yesterday. No, wait, that’s not true: a couple of players did live at the U.S. president’s house in and around 1906, and played quite a lot of hockey there. Back to them later, though. First we should say that hockey prowess is, for the most part, a losing proposition in American presidential politics. Franklin Delano Roosevelt played a bit when he was at school, as did John F. Kennedy (not to mention his brothers Ted and Bobby). Mainly, though, history shows that the best hockey players never quite make it to the White House.

Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who gave Lyndon Johnson a run for the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 1968, for instance: he was supposed to have been pretty sharp player at St. John’s University in the 1930s. The Democrats’ 2004 hope, John Kerry, attended St. Paul’s, the New Hampshire prep school that fancies itself as a bit of a hockey cradle: the black ice of the Lower School Pond is where the first American organized game is supposed to have taken place in 1883. (The great, tragic Hobey Baker was a St. Paul’s graduate, too.) Kerry was on the 1961-62 varsity team along with the director of the F.B.I., Robert Mueller. Not a good team, apparently, at least not when they met the Swiss Junior National Team, who whomped them 10-0. Kerry played on the right wing. He took long strides. “He was not a digger,” remembered another teammate. “He was tall, rangy, some sort of big eagle — kind of swoopy.” Comedian Denis Leary, who played with Kerry when the Senator was running for president, likened him to Phil Esposito, “king of the rebounds, not a backchecker.” Good enough, though, that Leary could dream of a rink on the South Lawn. “I’d be there. I’d help shovel, too.”

It never happened, of course, and still hasn’t. So far, actual sitting presidents have gone as far as meeting and greeting hockey players and no further. Richard Nixon sent Gordie Howe a telegram the day he retired for the first time, in 1971, applauding him “as a friend and a fan.” Does it seem strange that Stanley Cup-winning teams aren’t invited to take the Cup back to where it all started, Rideau Hall in Ottawa, and yet every year they go back to the White House? And yes, of course, some of the players are American-born: the 2008 Detroit Red Wings did actually have three to go with their seven Swedes and eight Canadians, which was more than last year’s Bruins, who had two — although, of course, goalie Tim Thomas chose to stay away yesterday to celebrate his freedom as he protested the threat his government poses to his rights and liberties.

On Monday, President Obama joked about Zdeno Chara’s height and the nickname Brad Marchand  seems to have inherited from Pat Verbeek: “Little Ball of Hate.” The Bruins gave the president a team sweater, number 11 — I guess probably in honour of Bill Quackenbush or maybe P.J. Axelsson?

Seems to have been a friendly affair all around, in keeping with previous visits. In 1982, greeting the NHL All-Stars, Ronald Reagan opted for movie anecdotes, Knut Rockne references. “It’s always been a rough-and-tumble sport requiring a special breed of athlete,” he said. He got himself into an interesting little reverie about how once people may have once turned away from hockey. “I can understand why hours of fine sportsmanship are often overlooked because of maybe a few moments now and then when tempers get short. But hockey’s such a majestic contest, let’s hope that public attention will focus on the nobler aspects of that sport.” He went on to international relations — “there’s no doubt that this sport represents what is best about the relationship between our two nations” — and he asked God to bless the hockey players.

A year later it was the New York Islanders who came to visit, with an emphasis, this time, on re-gifting. First Islanders general manager Bill Torrey stepped up. “Mr. President, on behalf of the team, I’d like to give you this rug that was handmade by an Eskimo woman in Canada and given to the team.”

 “Handmade,” said President Reagan. “Hey, I’m delighted.”

He joked with Billy Smith, recycling the same Knut Rockne anecdote he’d told the All-Stars. “I’m the goalie,” he told the press, who laughed. “The puck stops here.”

George H. W. Bush had the Pittsburgh Penguins over in June of 1991. He saluted Mark Recchi (who was back again yesterday as a Bruin) and Kevin Stevens, who’d stepped in to score while Mario Lemieux was out injured — “as we all know who follow this sport,” said the First Fan. President Bush also went for the puck-stops-here line, which I guess would be hard to resist. “You are what we like to refer to as Points of Light, each of you in your own way, grateful for setting examples to the country,” he waxed. “Thanks for coming.”

Bill Clinton, whenever he had players over, was always good for hockey-and-politics comparisons (“wish we had a delay-of-game penalty in the Senate”). In 1994 he told the Rangers how much he loved the playoffs. He tried to arrange his schedule so he could see the games, he said. He liked the fact that winning players have their names engraved on the Cup, too, that pleased him. So did the first four Russians to win it — that, to him, was just another sign of America’s outreach to the rest of the world.

Back to the hockey players at the White House in 1906: they were President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, Archibald (aged 12) and Quentin (9). The flat roof of the west wing that joins the mansion with the executive offices had been leaking because — it was said — the president used to roam around up there with a heavy tread. Once it was refurbished in the fall of the year, the boys and their hockey-playing friends decided that the roof was a much better venue for their hockey games than the one they’d previously used out in front of the White House, where they were tired of chasing pucks through the throngs of neighbourhood boys who flocked to watch. Up on the roof they were able to play undisturbed, “mixing in merry heaps,” as one newspaper put it, that could be clearly heard in the Oval Office, and watched over by the clerks and officials at work across the street in the State, War, and Navy Building. It’s probably worth noting that there was no ice involved in any this: the boys were on roller-skates.