Rod Brind'Amour has a general rule; if someone makes fun of you, you make fun of him back. But there are exceptions. Like, if the President of the United States makes a crack about how you can judge hockey players by looking at their noses, and then he thanks them for putting in their false teeth before a White House ceremony, and then he looks directly at you (assuming you're the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes), then you're not necessarily obligated to make fun of the President back. (Anyhow, say what you will, but Brind'Amour's nose does look like it entered into a shoving contest with several dozen freight elevators.)
Brind'Amour told President Bush his theory about non-retaliation this afternoon, when he presented Bush with a No. 43 Hurricanes jersey during one of those East Room ceremonies you always see photos of. It turns out that these events are sort of stand-up routines. The president launched, by my count, 18 laugh lines this afternoon. Some of them were legitimately funny.
"At the start of the season this team was ranked 28th out of 30 teams," he said, for example. "I like to be around people who keep expectations low."
Some of the laugh lines were sort of weird.
"You know, I'm not sure which is prettier, the Stanley Cup or Mike Commodore's hair," the president said, for example. "Little disappointed you got a hair cut."
But he's still the president, and the 'Canes were impressed, even though the 'Canes are from places like Red Deer, Alberta and Saskatoon and Brunei. And Brind'Amour, who isn't the sort of chap you imagine gets intimidated much, was a bit intimidated.
"I've got to tell you, I don't normally get nervous, but my knees were shaking," he said after the event, when some of the players chatted with the media outside the White House. "I didn't really know what to expect, but like I said, I was overwhelmed."
His teammates said much the same.
"We don't get the honor to do things like this, especially being an athlete, but when you get a chance to meet the President of the United States, to see him in a relaxed atmosphere like he was today, it's very special for all of us," said defenseman Bret Hedican. "We never thought...growing up with a stick and a puck that it'd take us here to the White House."
Team Prez and GM Jim Rutherford is friends with some guys in the Secret Service and has been on dozens of White House tours over the years, but he'd never met Bush. He started his in-ceremony remarks by saying that pro athletes often say they're going to Disney World when they win a title, but that instead he proudly told people he was going to the White House, where there are fewer concession stands but the lines aren't nearly as long. (I made that last part up.)
"I knew what I wanted to say and I was able to say what I wanted to," Rutherford said later. "But when you're standing as close as we are with the President of the United States, you're going to be a little bit nervous."
(My favorite Rutherford line: he said Bush was "what I thought he was." Seriously, he said that. Sadly, he did not say "If you want to crown him, then crown his...," well, you know what I mean.)
Anyhow, goalie and Stanley Cup MVP Cam Ward was also a bit in awe. He brought a camera with him and said he was "getting a little finger happy" all day, while the team took its tour bus past the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building, the Vietnam Memorial, the Marine Corps Memorial, the World War II Memorial, and all the rest. But Ward stopped taking photos when they got to the White House.
"I was a little intimidated," Ward told me. "I don't know what would happen to me if I took [a picture] of the president just randomly."
I don't know either. Anyhow, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly were there today; Bettman patted Bush on the back when he entered. North Carolina Senators Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr were there. North Carolina Rep. Howard Coble was there, too, wearing a 'Canes cap; "a fine looking lid, isn't it?" Bush said. "I thought you might be wearing that to cover up your bald head."
The players mostly looked clean-shaven and well put-together; right wing Craig Adams was sporting an impressive bandage-and-bruise ensemble around his right eye. I was gonna take a shot at defenseman Glen Wesley for wearing light slacks and a dark blazer instead of a suit, but since I spent the pre-ceremony moments trying to tuck my shirt in, I probably should keep my mouth shut.
And Bush spoke comfortably of hockey; he said it's hard to be married to a hockey player, and he paid tribute to equipment managers, and he said the Stanley Cup is one of the toughest trophies to win in all of sports, and that the Cup itself has been on many adventures and can hold 14 cans of beer, and he said the 'Canes have good hearts and were true champs, and he got a championship ring from the team and exchanged little barbs with them, or "japs," as Brind'Amour called them.
"He's just a regular guy in a lot of ways; I guess you don't really expect that," the captain said. "It was just kind of real easy. And I think he would fit in great in a locker room, to be honest with you."