Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan on Wednesday defended his organization's decision to visit the White House, but noted that it did not serve as a sign that the team has chosen a side in the debate that pits 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 two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions announced their decision on Sunday morning, which was also the day that Trump's criticisms of players who kneel during the national anthem sparked a mass increase in such protests around the NFL. Trump also took issue with NBA star Steph Curry for saying he wouldn't attend a White House visit with the league champion Golden State Warriors before rescinding the invitation to the team.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby supported the team's decision to attend the White House, but said that "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 has long been considered the face of the NHL, but Sullivan worried such a perception would cause external pressure to make some semblance of a political statement on the issue.
"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."
Pittsburgh's season opener is Oct. 4 against St. Louis.