The NHL’s Relationship with United States Presidents

Rarely do Presidents of the United States make it to the highlight reel of SportsCenter, but President Donald Trump has found himself there a few times in the past few weeks. First, he decided to attend a World Series game where the hometown Washington Nationals were playing host to the Houston Astros in Washington, D.C. Then again, this past weekend, he decided to take in some live sports action at the LSU – Alabama college football game. In between both, he and his family also took in a UFC fight at Madison Square Garden in New York.

USA Today took a look at the history of presidents attending sporting events. (from “Trump attends Alabama-LSU game during Louisiana election. How he, other presidents, use sports for politics’, USA Today, 11/8/2019)

Theodore Roosevelt loved college football, William Howard Taft began the tradition of the president throwing out the first pitch in baseball, and of course there’s the current commander in chief’s affinity for golf. One notable sport left out of USA Today’s walk down memory lane is the sport of hockey.

Matt “The Mask” Garrett carries the flag outside The White House. (Photo by Matt Garrett)

Granted, since hockey is still looked at a predominately Canadian pastime, the nostalgia and love affair between the sport and presidents is limited. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been times where presidents and the sport of hockey crossed paths. Here are a few notable examples.

Donald Trump

While he added a baseball game, UFC fight, and a college football game to his in-office sports-watching resume recently, the sitting president hasn’t attended a hockey game since taking office. He has continued the tradition of inviting the Stanley Cup Champions to visit the White House. During his tenure, the visits have become polarizing and controversial, with a few notable deflections.

By all accounts, the current president appears to be a New York Rangers fan. He’s been spotted attending games at Madison Square Garden as early as the 1980s (here is video proof, in case anyone doesn’t believe it). While he doesn’t go to games as much as Dancing Larry, Trump has made more than a few appearances to support the Blueshirts over the years. His former White House press secretary Sean Spicer even had to field questions on Trump’s hockey fandom.

Prior to his run into politics, he had a few interesting connections with the NHL. Greg Wyshynski once reported that the Trump Organization was interested in buying the Florida Panthers franchise in the late 1990s/early 2000s. The sellers decided to go with a local ownership group instead of any potential Trump offer. Speaking of the Panthers, Trump nominated Panthers owner Vince Viola as Secretary of the Army. Viola later turned down the nomination, in part because of his business dealings with the Panthers.

Vincent Viola Florida Panthers
Vincent Viola of the Florida Panthers (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Barack Obama

President Obama was a noted basketball fan, and attended a few college football games while in office. When it came to hockey, Obama was able to play host to his hometown Chicago Blackhawks not one, not twice, but three times during his presidency. His tenure in office perfectly coincided with the Blackhawks dynasty of the 2010s, so the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews became frequent visitors to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Obama even used Chicago’s success to playfully taunt Canada’s lack of a Stanley Cup win when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid Washington D.C. a visit.

President Obama with the 2014 Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

More infamously, Obama was at the receiving end of then-Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas’ snubbed invitation. The decision not to attend remains somewhat controversial today. Thomas has since retired and stayed out of the NHL spotlight.

George W. Bush

President Bush may be the president most directly involved with the American sports landscape, being the one-time owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Even if he was more focused on baseball and football (he is from Texas, after all), Bush was occasionally involved with his hometown Dallas Stars.

2006 Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes at the White House. (THW Archives)

For this season’s home opener for the Stars, Bush dropped the ceremonial puck to begin the game. While at American Airlines Arena, he also visited the Stars’ dressing room to read opening lineups and paid a visiting to the visiting Bruins locker room as well.

Bill Clinton

President Clinton holds a special distinction in hockey history. Clinton was the first, and so far only, sitting president to attend an NHL game. He took in a Washington Capitals playoff matchup during the 1997-98 season. Clinton had long promised to attend a Capitals home game, and finally lived up to his promise with his attendance that evening (from “Clinton Joins The Capitals Gang’, Washington Post, 5/28/1998). Years later, he would attend another hockey game. This time the former president would once again see the Panthers as they visited the Rangers at Madison Square Garden back during the 2011-12 season.

George H.W. Bush

The father of later president Bush, much like his son, was more known for his football and baseball fandom. All records seem to point out the tradition of yearly Stanley Cup champion visits began during the George H.W. Bush administration (from “NHL Insider: White House visit is a gift in itself’, Star Tribune, 11/12/2016). The 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins would kick off the long-standing tradition.

Ronald Reagan

It was during President Reagan’s administration that the Capitals played host to the NHL All-Star Game in 1982. Reagan commemorated the event with a White House luncheon, although he did not attend the actual game. At the luncheon, Reagan gave a speech where he joked about the prospect of trading Wayne Gretzky for the state of Texas.

Reagan was featured prominently on the All-Star Game program cover. He was placed alongside then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. That Trudeau is the father of Justin, who future President Obama would share a joke about his hometown Blackhawks years later.

Patrick Roy and Wayne Gretzky
Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final at the Great Western Forum, Los Angeles, California, June 7, 1993. (Photo by Scott Levy/Getty Images)

Reagan’s prophecy about Gretzky getting traded ending up coming true, but instead, the Great One was famously shipped off the Los Angeles Kings. After leaving office, Reagan attended one of the 1993 Stanley Cup Final games that put his local Kings against the Montreal Canadiens. Reagan and his wife attended Game 3 of the series.

Gerald Ford

When I had the idea for this article, there were some stories I already had in mind. I knew I wanted to share the story of Clinton being the first sitting president to attend an NHL game, and Trump’s seemingly on again and off again fandom of the Rangers. What I didn’t expect to find is that one of the most overlooked presidents in United States history has a unique connection to one of the greatest hockey dynasties of all time.

When it comes to President Ford, he’s most remembered for being the guy who replaced Richard Nixon after Watergate. After his less than three-year tenure in the Oval Office, Ford forged an unlikely friendship that led him to places in the NHL no United States President has ever gone before. From The Hockey News:

(Edmonton) Oilers owner Peter Pocklington had engaged Ford to address the Edmonton Junior Achievement organization and they got friendly. So from the early ’80s into the early ‘90s, Pocklington annually flew the Oilers to an in-season retreat in California where Ford delivered motivational speeches and golfed with the team. Pocklington acknowledged that Ford, a Michigan native, really wasn’t hockey savvy, although he grew to like the game due to his Oilers ties. Pocklington considered Ford’s contributions so important that he presented the former President all five of the Oilers Stanley Cup rings. No other president can say that.

Turns out Reagan wasn’t the only president to rub elbows with Gretzky. Ford’s contributions seem mostly behind the scenes. Although Ford didn’t seem to attend many games, yearly visits to his house and the occasional round of golf with the Oilers seemed common. Many Oilers personnel and players from the time period have fond memories of their (from “Athletic President Loved Oilers’, Edmonton Journal, 12/28/2006) associations with the former president.

Will There Ever Be a Hockey-Crazed President?

While the Stanley Cup champions may visit them year in and year out, the United States has yet to have a hockey-crazed president. Some support hockey out of patriotic motives, such as during the Winter Olympics. However, the sport still remains a distinctively Canadian export, with a North of the Border identity. Expecting to see the president sitting against the glass would be the equivalent of seeing the Canadian prime minister sitting on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl. Maybe one day it will happen, but we aren’t there yet.