WASHINGTON, D.C.—As Jonathan Toews was saying, Monday might have been nice for a day off. He and the Blackhawks played in Winnipeg on Saturday and back at home Sunday, so when he scoped out the schedule awhile ago, Monday had R&R written all over it.
Instead, the defending Stanley Cup champions departed Chicago at about midnight after an annoying overtime loss to Calgary, arrived in our nation’s capital about 2 a.m., slept fast, and staged a whirlwind tour during which they visited wounded warriors and The White House.
Nobody in the traveling party was seen yawning or heard complaining, but as President Barack Obama made perfectly clear, Corey Crawford would not be asked to comment under any circumstances.
“Once you get here, you forget about whether you’re tired or hurting,” said Toews, who has captained the team to two championships in four years. “You don’t think about what your normal day off is. There are plenty of those. This is amazing. To be with the President of the United States again, and before that, our soldiers… You think you’re going to cheer them up by seeing them. It’s the opposite. We feed off them. These are the real heroes.”
After changing into their game sweaters while on the bus in mid-morning, the Blackhawks entered the Warrior Café at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. They received a standing ovation, from those who could stand. A few in the gathering play for the USA Warriors, who practiced with the Blackhawks 20-on-20 last winter at Soldier Field. Then John McDonough, President & CEO of this reborn franchise, quickly and correctly rebooted the mood.
“We should be asking for your autographs,” said McDonough. Nearby, a double amputee who has been in and out of the sprawling facility for two and a half years, lifted a black bag from behind his wheelchair. It was full of pucks. If only he could get a couple or three of them signed, he could start sprucing up his living quarters.
Once Chicago’s boys of winter picked up on that, it took about 10 minutes. Every player obliged. The hero, who does not need his name in lights, beamed and bowed his head. Congressman Mike Quigley, a certified rink rat, called the Blackhawks “the classiest team in sports.” He might be biased since he’s from Illinois. He might also be correct.
“Nothing hurts on me now,” said Johnny Oduya. “If you come here sore, nothing hurts now. Not after seeing what these people have been through and their frame of mind. Look at them. All smiling.”
“As an American, it feels maybe a little extra special,” added Patrick Kane. “We think we make sacrifices as a group, but like I said when I went back home to Buffalo this summer and saw our servicemen and women: ‘I’m carrying a 35-pound Cup. You carry our country.’”
“Hey, I’m Canadian,” said Brent Seabrook. “But I feel the same. This is special to be around these amazing people.”
“Think about it,” concluded Brandon Bollig. “We take a hit in a game—a game!—for guys we know and care for. Our soldiers put their lives on the line in real life for complete strangers.”
At The White House, the current Blackhawks were joined by two comrades who contributed to the 2013 title run but have moved on: Ray Emery, now a goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers, and Jamal Mayers, who is a television analyst and still hasn’t worn the same suit twice. The guys got the grand tour, snapping pictures of themselves, each other and their surroundings. Then they were summoned to the East Room to take their positions.
Soon, Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz was introduced, then President Obama. An avid sports fan with declared geographical preferences, the most powerful individual in the world gushed about the best hockey team in the world having delivered two Stanley Cups during his tenure. Being “term-limited,” as he described himself, an animated Obama appreciated such dominance by a team from home.
“He makes us feel very comfortable,” noted Toews, who presented the President with an “OBAMA 13” white jersey. A group picture followed. Crawford, who admits he has been banned from every podium in Chicago, grinned from the back row. Strange, how two of the most famous recent athletes’ speeches—Crawford at June’s Grant Park love-in, and the Red Sox’ David Ortiz after the Boston Marathon bombings—have become instant classics requiring parental consent.
“Our guys get it,” praised McDonough. “It’s part of hockey’s culture, true, and our guys exemplify it all the time. Our guys also realize there is life beyond hockey, as you see here by the way they interact with our wounded warriors. There’s no going through the motions with our players, thank goodness, on or off the ice.”
When the Blackhawks took a detour in March 2011 to celebrate the previous season’s Cup conquest, McDonough labeled it probably their most important day off ever. Monday surely felt like another.
And this just in from Head Coach Joel Quenneville: no practice Tuesday.
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