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Penguins hope to avoid political storm in White House visit

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, 4:06 p.m.
The Penguins raise the Stanley Cup banner before the Penguins Blues game Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins raise the Stanley Cup banner before the Penguins Blues game Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

President Trump is scheduled to honor the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a White House ceremony Tuesday that comes as controversies over race, patriotism and freedom of speech have transformed North American professional sports into a political battleground.

No Penguins players are expected to skip the White House visit in protest, coach Mike Sullivan said after practice Monday.

The team has said since issuing a Sept. 24 statement accepting Trump's invitation that its visit is not intended to be an endorsement of any politician or agenda, Sullivan said.

“As I've said all along here, for us, this is not political,” Sullivan said. “The choice to accept the invitation by our organization, to go to the White House, is not political. Nobody's taken a side.”

On Sunday, vice president Mike Pence left an NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers because some players knelt during the national anthem.

“I left today's Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our flag or our national anthem,” Pence said in a statement. Trump later said via Twitter that he asked Pence to leave if any players took a knee.

Pence's departure from the game was just the latest chapter in the acrimonious relationship between the Trump administration and some professional athletes, including Trump's call for NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality or racial injustice and his decision to rescind a White House invite to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors a day after Warriors star Stephen Curry said he wouldn't accept the invitation.

Given that climate, Penguins players are, at the very least, walking into a politically charged environment whether they like it or not.

Captain Sidney Crosby, a Nova Scotia native, said he didn't know what to expect.

“From my side of things, there's absolutely no politics involved,” Crosby said. “Hopefully it stays that way. It's a visit that we've done in the past. It's been a good experience. It's not about politics, that's for sure.”

Winger Conor Sheary, a Massachusetts native, said he thinks the Penguins would have been criticized whether they decided to attend or not.

“Either way, you're going to get a raft, if you don't go or you do go,” Sheary said. “I think it's more about the fact that we won the championship, and it's tradition to go to the White House. It has nothing to do with who's the president or what decisions he's making.

“I think we're excited and proud to say we're Stanley Cup champions, and we just want to have that experience for the guys who haven't had it. Obviously, you don't know how many times you get to go back.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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