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Volume 20 No. 41
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The issue of unity: NHL


NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made his thoughts on protests during national anthems well known in May during a panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference, where he stated that while he encouraged players to be involved in political and social causes, games should be a block of time that is viewed as “apolitical.”

He also said that champions visiting the White House is “about respecting the institution. It’s not about what your politics are and who’s in the White House.”

As the sports world began to respond to President Donald Trump’s comments from Sept. 22, the NHL stood pat, as nothing about Bettman’s position changed.

After news broke on Sept. 23 that the Golden State Warriors’ invitation to visit the White House had been rescinded, however, the Pittsburgh Penguins released a statement the next morning saying the team had accepted an offer to visit the White House. The team had been swamped by media inquiries after the Warriors news, and with a team practice wrapping up and players being made available to media soon after 11 a.m., it looked to pre-empt any questions on the topic, which it discussed with the NHL prior.

The team’s statement said the team respected the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House — which it had visited after previous championships during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama — as well as the institution of the Office of the President. The statement also noted that “any agreement or disagreement with a president’s politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways” and that the team “respect(s) the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit.”

While this was a position that CEO David Morehouse — previously a member of the Clinton administration, and who also worked on the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry — publicly stated after the team’s Stanley Cup victory in June, the re-release of this information was quickly shared on Twitter by Trump.

The NHL soon after pondered if it should release any statements as well, and Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and others at the league office discussed the topic, according to league sources. It chose not to.

Last Monday, Bettman spoke to The Associated Press, saying that he respects players’ views on political and social issues, and that social issues “are a matter of individual belief and individual choice.”

On Tuesday, the league had a scheduled board of governors meeting in New York, where Bettman started the meeting with the topic.

NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr sent a memo to players saying the union would support any player who peacefully protested.

To date, no NHL player has protested during a national anthem. The NHL would not take any action against any player that chose to protest, league sources said. The NHL regular season begins Wednesday.

— Ian Thomas