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November 9, 2002 - THE WEST WINGS: Mighty Wings starstruck by mightier Bush
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THE WEST WINGS: Mighty Wings starstruck by mightier Bush

November 9, 2002

BY NICHOLAS J. COTSONIKA
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER

WASHINGTON -- It was the third time in six years the Red Wings had been honored at the White House as Stanley Cup champions. You would think meeting the president would have been old hat for them. But it wasn't.

As George W. Bush shook hands with the players, he noticed some bruises and stitches around Kris Draper's left eye. Unaware Draper had been struck by a stick, he said, "I want to know what the other guy looks like." Draper's mind raced. Eventually he blurted out, "Oh, you don't want to see him, Mr. President." But by then, it was too late. Bush had moved on down the line.

"I turtled," Draper said, shaking his head and smiling. "His presence just rattles you. I'm pretty good with comebacks, but around Mr. President I wasn't as quick as I usually am."

The Wings were alternately the stars and the starstruck Friday. They had a police escort. They stepped off the bus on blocked-off Pennsylvania Avenue and signed autographs for fans, then stepped through the gate and saw their names checked off a list by security. Even retired goaltender Dominik Hasek was there: He flew in just for the day from Prague, Czech Republic.

After passing through metal detectors, the Wings toured some rooms and signed autographs for government employees. With a handheld camcorder, Jason Williams taped Steve Yzerman taking pictures with some military police, then interviewed fellow rookie Henrik Zetterberg.

"So," Williams said, "what do you think of this?"

"It's pretty nice," Zetterberg said.

"Are you nervous or scared about meeting the president?"

"No, no. I'm hanging out with you, so I'm OK."

The Wings assembled on a podium in the East Room, next to the Stanley Cup, between portraits of Dolley Madison and George Washington, before dignitaries from Sen. Carl Levin to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Bush walked in right on time at 1:15 p.m., shook hands with former coach Scotty Bowman and gave a short speech.

A former owner of the Texas Rangers, Bush ribbed Tigers and Wings owner Mike Ilitch: "It just goes to prove it's easier to win in hockey than in baseball." He praised Bowman for having his name on the Cup 10 times: "Obviously, he knows what he's doing. He gets all these ruffians skating in the same direction." He commented on the Wings' roster, which has several all-time greats but only one American-born player, Chris Chelios: "It doesn't look like the Hall of Fame ballot to me. It looks like the United Nations."

"I think it's a remarkable feat that you've got all these stars from different parts of the world, all aiming in the same direction," Bush said. "Darren McCarty put it this way: 'A lot of us were trying to get it back. Some guys were fighting to do it for the first time. The bottom line is, we're all fighting to do it together.' And I appreciate that spirit. I think it's a good example for a lot of people who live in America."

McCarty couldn't believe the president quoted him. "I've had some cool stuff happen to me in my life," he said. "That's right up there." Yzerman couldn't believe it, either. "Is that what this world has come to?" he joked.

Bush lauded the Wings for using the Cup to brighten others' lives. Bowman thanked him, pointing out that the U.N. Security Council had passed the U.S.-drafted resolution on Iraq in the morning. "I know you had to get 15 countries" to vote for it, he said. "We had to win 16 games, so we know how hard that is." Yzerman presented Bush with a white No. 1 Wings sweater and a replica Cup. Bush shook hands and posed for a picture with the team.

Then the Wings watched in wonder at how casually Bush headed off for a national security briefing and a meeting with the prime minister of Hungary. "All right," Bush said with a wave, "see ya later." The Wings can only hope so.