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Remembering White House bin Laden rally on a surreal hockey night

Five years ago on May 1, President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, had been killed by “a small team of Americans.”

Five years ago, I witnessed hundreds of Americans converge on the White House for a celebration that went deep into the night.

Five years ago, before all of it happened, I was at a hockey game.

The Washington Capitals faced the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series – not exactly the most memorable affair, as it resulted in a Tampa Bay sweep. Vincent Lecavalier had two goals, including the overtime game-winner around 9:59 p.m. EDT.

The assembled reporters went through the postgame motions, with the player and coach interviews, before returning to the writers’ room at Verizon Center. It was then that an announcement that the President would address the nation was made, and naturally our imaginations ran off since we were basically in a bunker a few blocks from the White House.

I remember those moments of confusion well, since it was all so unprecedented. I also remember the news breaking only a few moments before the President stepped to the podium to make his announcement: Osama bin Laden had been killed.

We finished our game stories. Scenes from the White House depicted crowds assembling. So I grabbed my car from the garage, drove a couple of blocks over and parked, and hustled to Pennsylvania Ave. 

I wrote the following in the front seat of that car much later that night, trying to get an on-the-ground report to Yahoo as quickly as possible. From “USA Hockey represents at White House bin Laden rally, published in the early morning on May 2:

****

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hundreds of Americans rallied outside the White House early Monday morning, the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed sparking a raucous impromptu rally in the nation's capital — one that had its share of hockey fans in attendance.

Game 2 of the Washington Capitals' series against the Tampa Bay Lightning was played several blocks from the White House, a 3-2 overtime loss for the home team. By the time President Obama made the announcement, the local bars were still packed with hockey fans, many of whom trekked to the rally -- Obama signs sharing space in the crowd with Ovechkin jerseys.

And, of course, this young lady in the Patrick Kane Team USA sweater.

As news broke about bin Laden, the streets of D.C. were filled with revelers. College students, military, firemen, tourists … they all converged on the White House, sang "God Bless America" and "Na Na Na Goodbye" and joined in a moment of American history. (As did that dude who climbed the street lamp while people in the crowd chanted "Yes you can!")

Steve Whyno of the Washington Times caught up with a few more Capitals fans at the White House:

"Matt Diseati was at the Caps' game but called himself 'the most happy person on earth' to hear the news of bin Laden's death. It wasn't hard to forget about the Caps falling behind 2-0 in the series.

"'Of course you forget about it,' he said outside the White House. 'America won today. The Caps lost, but America won.'

"Kevin Mahorney of Falls Church wasn't at the Caps game but was wearing a throwback white jersey and walked around on crutches. His mood swing Sunday night was similar to many in the area. 'My heart was broken two hours ago, and now I hobbled my ass on crutches all the way from Falls Church to the White House,'" he said.

"Asked if he cared about the Caps erasing this deficit, Diseati said: 'I mean, maybe a little bit but not really, 'cause America won.'"

For the press covering Game 2, it was a surreal moment: After coach Bruce Boudreau's press conference, the TV inside the press room was turned to CNN. The only announcement at the time was of a major national security announcement from the president. Being in the heart of D.C., hearing those words … well, any number of Jack Bauer nightmare scenarios ran through my head.

When the bin Laden news broke ... well, like everyone else, we were enjoying the Twitter comedy and heartfelt messages on social media until we could hit the streets ourselves to witness history.

It's 1:43 a.m. as I write this on a side street a few blocks away from the White House. There's still cheering, hollering and car horns. On my way to the car, I turned to a Caps fan in the crowd, pointed at his sweater and asked him if he thought his night would end like this.

"Sorta makes you forget about an overtime loss, doesn't it?" was his reply.

****

My favorite thing from that night was this photo:

NHL

Yeah, that would be a Capitals jersey behind Obama’s teleprompter. The man’s son reached out to Mr. Irrelevant and wrote, “That would be my Dad, he was watching the Caps game at a bar downtown and got called back to work.”

Awesome. 

On Sunday morning, I caught a special “Outside The Lines” on ESPN that chronicled the Mets/Phillies game that night in 2011. I had never heard of the impromptu “USA!” chants from fans when the news spread in the 9th inning or the bewilderment of the players because they hadn’t heard the news. (The best was Canadian-born Jason Bay thinking the Philadelphia fans were taunting him.)

It’s funny how we experience historic moments. Sometimes it’s more about where and how we find out than the news itself. I’ll remember that window-less writers’ room, those guys hanging off of trees in front of the White House and my laptop pressed against the steering wheel of my car on a D.C. side street more than anything the President said that night.

But what an unforgettable night it was. 

-- 

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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