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Lightning’s White House visit ‘a long time in the making’

The trip comes at the right time, players say, to propel them into the postseason and on a third straight Stanley Cup run.
Published Apr. 25|Updated Apr. 26

WASHINGTON D.C. — The Lightning waited a long time to visit the White House, but maybe the timing for their trip, coming on Monday’s final off day of the regular season, was perfect.

With the postseason starting May 2, their trip to D.C. — which has long been a traditional perk for championship-winning sports teams — was a reminder of what it took to claim back-to-back Stanley Cups.

The pandemic kept the Lightning from the White House after their bubble victory in 2020, and two trips to to face the Capitals this season yielded no visit. Monday’s ceremony came together quickly, and the team flew up following Sunday’s win at the Panthers.

“It was a long time in the making,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We weren’t sure if we were going to get this opportunity. But it was certainly worth the wait. That was one of the highlights of a lot of our lives, not just our hockey careers, to get with the president.

“It was a tremendous honor for a lot of us and an unforgettable experience.”

President Joe Biden poses for a photo after speaking at an event to celebrate the Lightning's 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup championships.
President Joe Biden poses for a photo after speaking at an event to celebrate the Lightning's 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup championships. [ ANDREW HARNIK | Associated Press ]

Lightning forward Pat Maroon, who has been on the past three Stanley Cup-winning teams, hadn’t been to the White House until Monday, and said his mission was to coax President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, who are Flyers fans, onto the Tampa Bay bandwagon.

Biden, who hosted the Bucs at the White House last July, recognized Tampa Bay’s recent pro sports success.

“It’s a pretty good time to be a sports fan in Tampa,” Biden said. “I don’t know what the hell you have in the water down there.”

During the outdoor ceremony on the South Lawn, Biden applauded the Lightning for their back-to-back titles as well as the organization’s community involvement. Biden also noted that the Lightning made Amalie Arena available for COVID vaccinations last season; Jill Biden, in fact, visited the arena to promote getting vaccinated.

“Thank you all for the great work you’re doing in the community, congratulations again for all the great work you’ve done on the ice,” Biden said. “And I want to wish you good luck for the upcoming playoffs. Who knows, as I said, you may be here next year if you’re willing to come back.”

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik invited Biden to Tampa to watch a game from his suite — and to attend the team’s next boat parade.

“We have a ‘no talking’ rule in our suite,” Vinik said. “When the puck’s in play, nobody’s allowed to talk. I’ll make an exception for you.”

The Lightning's Ryan McDonagh looks back at President Joe Biden as he speaks during Monday's ceremony.
The Lightning's Ryan McDonagh looks back at President Joe Biden as he speaks during Monday's ceremony. [ ANDREW HARNIK | Associated Press ]
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The team presented Biden with a blue Lightning jersey with a No. 46 on the back — Biden is the 46th president — and an engraved silver hockey stick.

Biden also shared a light-hearted moment with Stamkos, 32, about how long he’s been in the league.

“Steve, 14 seasons?” Biden said. “You’re getting old, man. I don’t know. I’ve got to get some advice from Steve about this.”

Stamkos deferred to defenseman Ryan McDonagh, one of the five American-born Lightning players, to speak on behalf of the players. And and much as his words focused on winning two Cups — and the challenges and sacrifices involved through daily COVID testing and strict protocols, and players fighting through injuries — he also looked ahead to the playoffs.

“In a week from now, we get to start another journey and hopefully chase down a third Stanley Cup,” McDonagh said. “Although we know the difficulties ahead of us, we feel we have a great group intact that’s going to battle hard for each other and leave it all on the ice. The quest for a third Cup is not out of reach. We’ll do whatever we can, Bolt Nation.”

Inside the White House, the Lightning received treatment befitting champions, with tours of the West Wing, Red Room and Blue Room. They met Secret Service members and White House staff from Tampa. And even through it wasn’t on the team’s itinerary, the Lightning received a surprise tour of the Oval Office from Biden.

President Joe Biden smiles as Lightning owner Jeff Vinik speaks during Monday's ceremony.
President Joe Biden smiles as Lightning owner Jeff Vinik speaks during Monday's ceremony. [ ANDREW HARNIK | Associated Press ]

“Originally we weren’t told we were going to see it,” McDonagh said. “Mr. President invited us there at the end of the ceremony. There’s much history and tradition coming from there. To get to see that first-hand is pretty unique. ... You wish you could spend more than one day to try to take it all in.”

Not only was coach Jon Cooper, a former lawyer, impressed with Biden’s sports knowledge, he was fascinated by the president’s law background.

“I know the President must do this all the time, but for us, he was so generous,” Cooper said. “Being in the position he’s in as the leader of the free world and all that stuff, he has an amazing ability to wipe that persona aside and just be a human being, like he was one of our teammates. I kind of wanted to get greedy and kind of sit down with him in a bar and listen to the story of his life.”

The Lightning used the event to show off their flashy championship rings, and Biden was among those impressed by the bling.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos shows off his two Stanley Cup rings.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos shows off his two Stanley Cup rings. [ EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Times ]

“I don’t think I’ve ever worn both of these on one hand together,” Cooper said. “But these are fascinating, wonderful rings and when you see them on, including the President, they want to take a look.”

It was still a reunion of sorts. While every current Lightning player on the past two title teams was present, a few former Cup champions also attended. Mathieu Joseph flew in from Ottawa, and retired players Braydon Coburn and Curtis McElhinney were there.

Bucs Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, now a member of the Lightning front office, returned to the White House for the first time since he won a college football national championship with Florida State. The Bucs’ 2002 Super Bowl-winning team didn’t go to the White House because of the war in Iraq. And a lockout canceled the season following the Lightning’s first title in 2003-04, meaning no White House trip.

Local dignitaries attending included Tampa mayor Jane Castor, her predecessor Bob Buckhorn and former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman. WWE wrestler turned local philanthropist Titus O’Neil took selfies with the Stanley Cup before the ceremony. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and U.S. Representative Kathy Castor also were in attendance.

Now for the Lightning, the time for looking back is done.

“These are little, I guess, bread crumbs that come along with winning a Stanley Cup,” McDonagh said. “The good thing with our group is the hunger’s still there. We don’t need any kind of extra motivation, but certainly this does heighten the excitement, for sure, going into the last week of the regular season and before the start of the playoffs.”

• • •

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