hockey night in the east room: when prime ministers and presidents dine

wh cup

Trophy Case: U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes (and gloats over) the Stanley Cup to the White House’s East Room on February 18, 2016. The Chicago Blackhawks were also on hand.

“Canada exports two things to the United States: hockey players and cold fronts. And Canada imports two things from the United States: baseball players and acid rain.”
• Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, speaking at a lunch ahead of Major League’s Baseball’s 1982 All-Star Game, as reported by Michael Farber of the Montreal’s Gazette

Thirty-nine years after Justin Trudeau’s father last dined officially at the White House, Canada’s prime minister will end a busy day of Washington business with a state dinner tonight at President Barack Obama’s place. While we’ve been alerted to what’s on the menu — baked Alaskan halibut casserole; Colorado lamb — what we don’t know at this hour is just how much hockey the two leaders will be talking.

The White House has a long and nuanced hockey history. But ahead of the festivities in the executive mansion’s East Room, a review of earlier White House state dinners for Canadian prime ministers tells us that the game has come up but rarely in the history of official talking — the toasts, the speeches of welcome — that go on when PMs and presidents converge in Washington.

Before tonight, Canadian prime ministers have banqueted seven times at the White House. The first time was in November of 1945 when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King paid a visit to Harry Truman. Discussing with reporters a telephone call he’d had with the PM a month before the dinner, Truman was asked whether they’d talked atomic bombs at all. “We discussed every subject,” said the President, “in which Canada and the United States are interested, but I am not at liberty to make any statement.”

Which all but confirms that the two leaders were engaged in bilateral talks regarding how well Bill Mosienko was clicking that fall with the brothers Bentley, Doug and Max, for Chicago’s Black Hawks. Come the actual state dinner — well, British PM Clement Attlee was on hand for that, too, so just to be polite at that point in the post-war world they had more pressing matters to talk about

It continued quiet in terms of high-level hockey-talking. John Diefenbaker and Dwight Eisenhower supped together in 1960 without exchanging so much as a token hockey cliché.

Same thing when Diefenbaker met with John F. Kennedy in Washington on February 20, 1961. The Trail Smoke Eaters were over in Czechoslovakia preparing to play for the world championships; in Detroit, Gordie Howe had just scored his 500th NHL goal. The two leaders had no comment, either way.

Lyndon Johnson hosted Lester Pearson on January 22 of 1964. This was a luncheon, mind you, in the White House’s State Dining Room, which means, well, I guess, early in the day and therefore not as momentous a meal as dinner? There were toasts, and President Johnson began his like this:

The Prime Minister asked me if I was going to make a speech and I told him I was going to attempt to, not over three minutes in length, but I would expect loud and vociferous applause.

I choose to feel that this is not just a meeting today between two heads of government, but rather a reunion of neighbors who meet around the dining table in friendship and with affection. Mr. Prime Minister, we in this country are proud of your achievements and we are joined in your purpose. We have applauded your craftsmanship and approved of your leadership from your major role in the creation of the United Nations to your winning of the Nobel Peace Prize and even your performance as defenseman on the Oxford hockey team.

None of the leaders went on the record regarding Bobby Orr, Miracles On Ice, or indeed any hockey matter during Pierre Trudeau’s successive state dinners with Richard Nixon (1969) and Jimmy Carter (1977).

It wasn’t a state occasion in December of 1974 when Trudeau supped at the White House — The Globe and Mail described it as “a stag black-tie dinner” given by President Gerald Ford. They were in the Blue Room, and at 9.15, postprandially, the President toasted his guest. Trudeau responded:

Mr. President, gentlemen, and friends:

When Canadians travel abroad, Mr. President, they spend lots of time explaining to other people how they are different from the Americans. There is a great belief in other lands that Canadians and Americans are exactly the same. I am particularly distressed to find this when I am dealing with the Common Market. We are different, and we have different problems and different economic requirements.

But it does happen that we have to show how similar we are and how close our two peoples are. And the best example I can find, when I have to explain that kind of thing, is to talk about in summer, in the baseball stadium in Montreal where tens of thousands of Canadians get together to cheer for the Canadian team against the visiting American team when every one of the players on both sides is American! [Laughter]

When I have stayed in some of your American cities, it is another story. In winter at your hockey forums, they cheer for the local team, and probably 95 percent of the players on both sides are Canadians — and the best ones.

And this, I think, shows really how close the people are in their goals, in their ways of living, in their love of sports, in their values, even in standards of their own lives.

Brian Mulroney was known to vary a Trudeauvian theme or two: to most Americans, he once said, Canada means snowstorms and Wayne Gretzky.

He followed Trudeau père to the White House, too, when Ronald Reagan had him over, twice, in the 198os.

“Mr. Prime Minister, welcome,” President Reagan said in 1986 when Mulroney stopped in for supper for the first time in 1986. “Allons-y a travail.” Mulroney returned in April of 1988 when, again, nowhere in any of the official wordings did anyone have anything to say about hockey.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, one feels sure, would have had a quip or two to offer, about John Ross Robertson, Toronto’s old Blue Shirts, Bruce Ridpath, but our erstwhile hockey-historian-in-chief never made it to the White House for a state dinner.

And tonight? The chances that there will be mentions of hockey when the leaders rise to speak their pieces are, I’m confident, fair to good, if only to continue the bright banter they began last month.

As presidents like to do, Barack Obama had the Stanley Cup over in February to congratulate the holders from Chicago. “It is always fun to have the Stanley Cup here,” he said in remarks that included thoughtful tributes to Kimmo Timonen and Scott Darling. “It truly is the best trophy in sports.” With the Blackhawks having won three Cups during his presidency, he felt he was owed some thanks. “I think it’s pretty clear the kind of luck I’ve brought to this team.”

He was already thinking of tonight, too. “And,” he said, “by the way, we’ve got a state dinner with Canada coming up, so we may just leave it right in the middle of the room.” [Laughter and applause] “We’ll see. We could gloat a little bit. Just to gloat a little bit.” [Applause]

Prime Minister Trudeau wasn’t long in replying, on Twitter:

trudeau obama