Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan insists the franchise's decision to visit the White House does not mean the team is wading into the increasingly charged intersection of sports and politics.
Sullivan defended the decision Wednesday, stressing it did not serve as a signal that the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions are picking a side in the increasingly heated debate between President Donald Trump and NFL players who protest during the national anthem.
"I think there appears to be a perception out there that our organization has made a decision to accept the invitation to the White House that we have taken a stance on the issue, when the reality is, it's just the opposite," Sullivan said. "We haven't taken any stance. The Penguins, as an organization and our players, have chosen not to use this platform to take a stance. There appears to be a perception that we have, and it is wrong."
The Penguins released a statement Sunday indicating they would attend a ceremony at the White House, a tradition for numerous championship teams. The announcement came after numerous media requests following Trump's decision to rescind an invitation to the NBA's Stephen Curry after the Golden State Warriors star indicated he would not attend.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Sunday that he supported the team's choice to go to the White House, adding "everyone's got the right to go or not go. But we've been invited and we accepted the invitation. I don't think you have to read into it any more than that."
Crosby faced criticism in his native Nova Scotia, with the Halifax Chronicle Herald — Atlantic Canada's largest-circulation newspaper — running an editorial cartoon Monday depicted Crosby meeting Trump in the Oval Office, with the hockey player saying, "I'm Sid the Kid," and Trump replying, "I'm Donald the Baby."
An opinion piece from two local professors offered six reasons for Crosby to stay home, with the fifth saying: "Remember your roots. You are from Cole Harbour, the flashpoint of black and white race relations in Canada for the past 30 years. The parallels between your hometown and the U.S. today are too obvious to ignore."
A column in Halifax's alternative weekly, The Coast, compared Crosby to a notably apolitical singer: "The Taylor Swift of hockey has no problem joining his Stanley Cup-winning teammates in Washington."
One of Halifax's most outspoken social activists, El Jones, weighed in with a 900-word opinion piece that took the NHL star to task for failing to fall into line with other athletes. Jones, Halifax's former poet laureate, noted that Crosby said there was "little to no discussion" in the locker room about the decision to visit the White House.
Sullivan defended Crosby from what the coach views as external pressure on the sport's most popular player to make some sort of political statement.
"The fact that people seem to think that Sid needs to bear this burden of responsibility is unfair," Sullivan said. "This guy does nothing but go to the rink, help the Penguins win championships and be a good person every day. That's how we see it. Having said that, we have respect for those that choose to express themselves differently. I wish we would receive the same respect in return, and I wish our captain would as well."
Former NHL player Georges Laraque called Pittsburgh's decision "an embarrassment."
Sullivan said "everyone is well aware of what's going on" surrounding the anthem, though no Penguins have participated in any protests. San Jose Sharks forward Joel Ward told The Mercury News he wouldn't rule out kneeling during the anthem.
Sullivan indicated neither he nor his players would talk further about the White House visit. Pittsburgh opens the regular season next Thursday.
"We want to play hockey, our players want to play hockey," Sullivan said. "That's what we want to do, that's what we love to do. From here on out, we're going to answer questions revolving around playing hockey, because that's where our focus needs to be right now, making sure we are prepared for game one."
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Will Graves, The Associated Press