WASHINGTON, D.C. — Starting with the organizational statement released Sept. 24—a few hours after President Trump tweeted that NFL players protesting social injustices by kneeling during the national anthem should be suspended or fired for their actions—the Pittsburgh Penguins have insisted that Tuesday afternoon’s appearance at the White House was an apolitical event. “Nobody’s choosing a side,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after Trump spoke for 13-plus minutes in the East Room, as players flanked him on risers. “Nobody's taking a stand. We are simply honoring our championship and the accomplishments of this group of players.”
They are tremendous athletic achievements, no doubt. Back-to-back Stanley Cups, the first repeat run by an NHL team in two decades. Consecutive playoff MVP honors for captain Sidney Crosby, which hadn’t happened in 25 years. A fifth career ring for Hall-of-Fame owner Mario Lemieux, “one of the all-time greats,” according to Trump, “and a really great golfer too.” The Penguins visited Barack Obama after winning in ‘08-09 and ‘15-16, as well as with George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. According to Sullivan, it was an “honor,” a “celebration,” and “a terrific experience” to experience the same with Trump.
The President appeared to rarely veer from the teleprompter script in his remarks. He asked if the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh’s upcoming opponents, were a “tough” team. (The crowd booed.) He referred to Crosby and center Evgeni Malkin as “the two-headed monster,” adding that the former might’ve already “outdone” Lemieux in career accomplishments, and that the latter “looks like he’s a basketball player.” (The crowd cheered.)
He called out goalie Matt Murray, wondering whether the wiry 23-year-old had “good reflexes from day one.” He referred to the Penguins—who brought 19 players from last year’s team, seven of whom were born in the United States, all of whom are white—as “true champions and incredible patriots.” Then he praised their handsomeness. “In fact, I actually don’t like standing in front of them,” Trump said. “We always like unattractive teams, right?” (The crowd laughed.)
He joked that Penguins owner Ron Burkle, a long-time donor to Democratic political campaigns, should join the administration to help renegotiate NAFTA, lamenting that the bureaucratic process was dragging out due to objections from “the other side." He looked around for winger Phil Kessel, who needed some coaxing before coming to the front and shaking the president’s hand, a bashful smile spread across his face. “These guys don’t want to be politicians,” Trump said as Kessel approached. “They shouldn’t be. Don’t be a politician.”
There was, however, no mention of the NFL players who knelt prior to Sunday’s Colts-Niners game, which Trump had instructed Vice President Mike Pence to leave early if anyone did. Or the Golden State Warriors, whom Trump disinvited to the White House after star Stephen Curry said he did not plan to attend. Or Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown, who reported receiving death threats after becoming the first NHL player to protest by raising a closed fist above his head Saturday night. “I love my country,” Brown wrote on Twitter, “but that doesn’t mean I cannot acknowledge that it is not perfect. In my life, I have been through more than my fair share of racism both on and off the ice. There comes a time where you cannot remain silent, hoping and wishing for a chance. It takes much more.”
As he stood outside the West Wing, Sullivan was asked if he would take issue should one of his players decide to kneel during the anthem. “No, I would not,” the Marshfield, Mass. native replied. “As we've stated all along, we understand the circumstance surrounding this visit. We're very respectful of anyone's right to protest or demonstrate as they see fit.”
According to Sullivan, “zero” political topics were broached when the Penguins visited the Oval Office before the ceremony. He said they presented Trump with “a gift,” but didn’t specify what. At similar events in the past, teams have traditionally given the president a custom jersey for a photo op, which did not happen this time. A 118-word press release appeared on the Penguins’ website featuring a picture of several players, but their social media accounts posted nothing from the afternoon. No players were made available for comment to reporters after Sullivan took one final question: Was the president wrong “to attack” the NFL?
“Everybody's going to have their opinions on the matter.” Sullivan replied. “I don't believe it's my place to share it.”