My city’s hockey team is the best in the world, and last Wednesday night was the final celebration of back-to-back Stanley Cup wins before the puck dropped on a new season. The lights went dark at PPG Paints Arena a half-hour before game time against St. Louis, and what ensued was part EDM concert, part monster truck rally, part presidential inauguration, and part church service. It was all a monument to the franchise’s hockey greatness, and some 18,000 people were in their seats to witness it.
Fourteen days earlier, the Penguins found themselves in the middle of another Donald Trump-engineered culture debate. Two days after Trump called protesting NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem “sons of bitches” and one day after he “withdrew” a White House invitation from Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors (after Curry had said he did not want to go), the Penguins said they’d be visiting Trump in D.C. This was briefly a big local discussion, but it was not high on the fan base’s mind last Wednesday night.
The front office and coaching staff were introduced first. Eventually, the camera focused on Mario Lemieux, the greatest player in franchise history and the co-owner who kept the team from financial ruin and relocation several times over. The PA guy didn’t have to announce his name for a hero’s ovation to nearly bring the roof down. The same routine followed when Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby skated out later.
I am in section 209, row B that night. One section to the left, four seats in and one row down from me, there’s a guy in his late 20s in an old Ulf Samuelsson jersey. When the Penguins’ best are introduced, he stands up and bows. When Crosby’s name is announced and he emerges from the tunnel, the man throws his hands up and looks upward like he’s prayed for rain and gotten it.
I have a weird feeling that Wednesday night. I’ve been thinking for two weeks about the Penguins’ choice to go see Trump. I’m from Mt. Lebanon, and grew up during both the Jagr-Lemieux and Crosby-Malkin eras. It bothers me that the team I care about is going to see this man at this moment. And I get it, but I don’t like it.
I’ve talked to a few dozen other fans from Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas, and for the most part, they aren’t bothered at all. Many are surprised that I’d even ask about the White House on this celebratory night. That’s weird to me, given who Trump is and whom his worldview represents. Being a fan of this team used to come naturally. I find it more difficult now, but here I am, watching intently. It’s a hard feeling to reconcile.
After the banner goes to the rafters, the PA announcer calls on Jeff Jimerson, a man who’s famous for exactly one thing: singing the national anthem at Penguins games. We go wild for Jeff Jimerson. As he steps onto the ice, there is no one kneeling, obviously, either in the crowd or on either the Pittsburgh or St. Louis benches.
Jimerson is just about to start belting out Oh Say Can You See, and my eye shifts left again to the guy in the Samuelsson sweater. He’s now standing upright, yelling.
“Hockey players fucking stand for the national anthem!”
The Penguins’ visit with Trump is Tuesday. It’s a normal act in an abnormal time. The team visited with Barack Obama this time a year ago and in 2009, and with George H.W. Bush after wins in the 1990s. But this visit comes at a fraught moment between the sports world and the White House.
Rooting for the Penguins has always been easy. (It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done, since I fell in love with the Jaromir Jagr Pens in the late ‘90s.) They’re a charmed franchise that’s been blessed with transcendent talent for decades, winning five Cups in 50 seasons. Now, for the first time, caring about this team is a political choice.
The president and the Penguins both announced their visit on Sept. 24, right on the heels of Trump’s flaps with the NFL and the Warriors. Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle had indicated the team would go in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interview in July, so this was more affirmation than unveiling. But its effect was the same. Trump immediately fell back on the Penguins to show that sports, somewhere, were still with him:
Please to inform that the Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL will be joining me at the White House for Ceremony. Great team!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
He has since tweeted a video of the national anthem at a St. Louis Blues game, praising “19,000 RESPECTING our National Anthem.” At an Indianapolis Colts game two days before the Penguins’ visit, Vice President Mike Pence executed a planned walkout after players kneeled during the anthem. Pence painted them as anti-American.
I left today's Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.— Vice President Pence (@VP) October 8, 2017
The Penguins are the next athletes to be made into Trump’s props.
When the Penguins stand on a podium with the president, it’s possible he’ll applaud their standing for the anthem and praise hockey players in general for doing the song his way. Trump might use them to bolster his case that athletes (playing in majority-black leagues) who don’t are somehow un-American, perhaps lumping in players who don’t have the respect to visit him at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Even if Trump’s comments are tame, the Penguins will be doing him a service with their presence. They will smile behind him, completing a presidential photo op as he targets other athletes.
The Penguins’ role in Trump’s attack on NFL protesters or his dis-invitation of Curry seems lost on Pittsburgh. The city doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about NFL teams that aren’t the Steelers or a top AFC competitor. It spends almost no time on the NBA, which Pittsburghers regard as a more boring league than the old Big East. That Trump has chosen the Penguins to pit against the Warriors has largely not registered.
“You’re taking two leagues and putting them at odds against each other, and it’s pretty clear the dynamics of it,” said Josh Taylor, a KDKA sportscaster and weekend host on 93.7 The Fan. “You’re talking about a league that is a vast majority of African American players vs. a league that is a vast majority of all white players. And that probably didn’t really catch on with a lot of people here.”
In making the trip, the Penguins are insistent that they don’t mean any harm — actually, they insist that they don’t mean anything at all.
“There appears to be a perception out there that because 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,” head coach Mike Sullivan told reporters days after the visit was announced last month. “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. It’s wrong.”
No Penguins on the invitation list have publicly criticized the trip or said they’d avoid it. Winger Ryan Reaves was acquired in the offseason, so he wasn’t invited, but he said he’d skip the visit if he were over his personal disagreements with Trump. Former enforcer Georges Laraque called the visit an “embarrassment.” Reaves and Laraque are two of the five black players to suit up for the franchise in the last decade.
Crosby, the captain and face of the team, echoed the organizational line.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion," he told reporters. "I think we've said before, this isn't us taking a stance. It's totally with the spirit of keeping politics out of it, and it's unfortunate that people want to try to twist it to become that, but it's really not, and I think that's really the truth of it all."
Late in training camp, Sullivan said the Penguins would “answer questions that revolve around hockey, because that’s where our focus needs to be right now.”
It’s not surprising that the Penguins think they’re in an apolitical bubble as they visit the most political person in the world. Usually, they have been in an apolitical bubble, and that’s been important, given the varied politics of this region.
Pittsburgh, the city, is mostly progressive — it voted 75 percent for Hillary Clinton. The rest of Allegheny County is more conservative, and you can drive 40 minutes in any direction from the city and be in deep red territory. The surrounding counties are all conservative, and the Penguins are a regional team with followings in all of them, as well as in West Virginia and Northeast Ohio.
Every team has fans of different political stripes, but Pittsburgh’s fan bases are probably among the most ideologically divided. Recent research by FiveThirtyEight found the Steelers’ fan base had the second closest split in the NFL between Democratic and Republican fans. I imagine the Penguins’ is similar, though their footprint isn’t as wide as the Steelers’.
Generally, Penguins fans’ political differences haven’t surfaced. Fans poured into the old Civic Arena from the city, its wealthy suburbs, its less wealthy ex-mining communities, and all over Western Pennsylvania. They’ve done the same at the new arena, where the Penguins have played since 2010, and built up an announced sellout streak that’s closing in on 500 games. For hockey, they are a TV ratings juggernaut.
When politics have animated Penguins fans in the past — at least, in the context of their hockey fandom — it’s been unifying. Not in the new, say-nothing way that we now seek “unity” in sports, but in the sense that most Penguins fans were actually on the same side. We wanted taxpayers to pay up for a new arena when the team threatened to relocate to Kansas City a decade ago, and eventually the taxpayers did. The state agreed to pay $7.5 million for 30 years, though it’s worked out to be more than that. Personally, at the time, I felt this was a fine use of government money.
I talked with a few dozen fans at that Wednesday opener. Most didn’t want to discuss Trump or the Penguins’ visit with my recorder out. A significant majority of ticket-buyers I spoke to didn’t have a problem with the visit, but it’s a fool’s errand to try to quantify the fan base as feeling one way in particular. If one opinion prevailed on a truly broad scale, this discussion would be different and smaller. I thought it was notable that while people didn’t want to talk much about the trip, everyone knew about it. It’s not as if the Penguins and Trump have gone under the radar.
“I’m disappointed that they’re going. I understand why,” Candace Woods, a 25-year-old who fell in love with the team while attending nearby Washington & Jefferson College, said. She thought players were going along with an ownership diktat, which was for the best to avoid a rift. Some of her friends, she said, had sworn off the franchise as “racists, fascists, misogynists, all of it,” which Woods found an overreaction.
“All professional athletes are just entertainers, and we’re not there to see them take one view for or another,” said Ryan Martino, who’d come in from Youngstown, Ohio, for the opener. “We’re just here to see them do their trade and their craft and make sure that they do their sport to the fullest and extreme.”
One man I spoke to from the city’s South Hills, in his mid-20s, said he’d recently returned from a year abroad with the Army National Guard. He said he wouldn’t allow me to use his name because he’s now a local police officer, but he’d take any players not showing up at the White House as an act of disrespect.
“If they don’t go, they should all be fired,” his dad told me as we parted.
Wherever I ate during my few days home, I scavenged for an indication that this was a big deal. I walked laps around the concourses throughout the night and camped out in bathroom lines in a way that would’ve gotten me weird looks if anyone had noticed. I tried to find any hint that this was a discussion topic by the water cooler. It was not.
“People just wanna drink. They don’t wanna be aggravated,” a bartender told me on the South Side the next night, a Thursday, amid a 10-1 Blackhawks drubbing of the Penguins. He didn’t mind that I’d asked. Customers just didn’t discuss it much.
The harshest criticism of the Penguins’ decision has not been local. A lot of it hasn’t even been American, with Canadian outlets taking the lead.
A Vice Canada columnist said Crosby “had a chance to speak up for black people who play and love hockey” but sided with Trump instead.
Another writer at The Athletic, from Montreal, criticized Lemieux over the visit. Penguins fans and some Pittsburgh media members shouted him down on Twitter in response. Lemieux is close to untouchable in this city.
A panel on TSN, the Canadian ESPN, universally disagreed with taking the trip.
It’s not that no one in the Pittsburgh media’s been critical or offered warnings. The Post-Gazette’s Sean Gentille warned that the Penguins should be ready to become props. Several local radio hosts have argued that the Penguins can’t be apolitical.
But Pittsburgh is like a lot of places in two regards. One, it’s tribal, and the people here don’t care for it when local teams are criticized from elsewhere. There are few things they could do that wouldn’t lead us to defend them from outside criticism. Two, it prefers its sports and politics separate, no matter how impossible that is.
It happened that the Steelers stayed in the tunnel during the national anthem in Chicago the same weekend the Penguins-Trump news cycle started, and there’s only so much appetite for Western Pennsylvanians to grapple with the non-sports things about their sports teams all at once. The matter of the Trump visit got back-burnered.
“In the first couple of days, it was something that really had legs to it,” Taylor said.
Around the time the Penguins declared they’d stop talking about the White House visit, everyone else stopped, too. By the week before the Penguins were set to be used as pawns against the country’s best black athletes, the visit was no longer a topic of local conversation. And afterward, it certainly won’t be, either.
Hockey is a bubble unto itself. It’s an expensive game to play: maybe $1,000 a year for ice fees, a few hundred bucks more to get equipment, and potentially several thousand more on travel. It’s also time-consuming. By the time I was 8 and playing hockey in the Pittsburgh suburbs, my parents were spending all that money and lugging me to 6 a.m. practices on Sundays and every Wednesday night, plus a game a week.
By the time my brother and I had finished high school, they’d spent tens of thousands of dollars on our hobby. They’d also replaced several garage door windows, knocked out by pucks. Most of the kids who grow up to play in the NHL grow up in comfort.
Many of them aren’t American, but their immigration status isn’t in danger during a Trump presidency. The sport’s culture prioritizes saying only the most vanilla things and not rocking the boat. When Tampa Bay forward J.T. Brown raised his fist during the anthem on Oct. 7, he was the first NHL player to make a statement on the level of many NFL players. Hockey was never going to lead the resistance.
Hockey is among the world’s whitest sports in general, and it’s lily-white in Pittsburgh. I didn’t have a black teammate from age 5 through 17. My brother had one. The Penguins’ fan base includes people of all kinds of backgrounds, but it’s overwhelmingly white, too. Looking out at the crowd at PPG Paints Arena it’s hard to spot a fan who isn’t white.
This administration’s racial politics are a matter of practicality at this point. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is widely segregated by race and income. The result is an echo chamber of silence when fandom gets uncomfortable. Trump might use the Penguins to antagonize non-whites in sports and beyond, but the stakes for a large portion of Penguins fans — and all but one current player — are relatively small.
The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions will keep selling out their building every night and racking up huge ratings. The Penguins are holy here, and their choice to visit Trump won’t cost them a significant number of fans. With about half the fan base, it’ll endear them even further. Some won’t care, and some won’t think about it. There are still people who try not to think about politics at all. Probably more than I think.
I hate this visit because of what it means for sports teams to hang around Trump in this moment. Whether Trump takes explicit digs at the NFL while the Penguins are with him or not, their presence says it’s OK — or, at least, not that big a deal — for a president to target athletes less privileged, generally speaking, than hockey players.
Trump makes side-taking in this context virtually impossible, and in going, the Penguins are siding with him even as they assiduously claim they’re not. That the Penguins will stand with him and smile amid everything else he’s doing disgusts me more than anything else one of my favorite teams has ever done. And there’s a lot of competition there.
So I’m angry that the Penguins are playing this part. Mad enough to swear off a childhood passion altogether? I don’t know if I can start ignoring something I’ve loved since I was 3. I would lose something fun to watch with my family and my friends, something I’ve always done.
This calculation is why the Penguins had little reason not to go to the White House in the first place. I’m part of every problem I’ve just written about. Trump put stress on the bubble around Penguins fandom, but that bubble hasn't burst.