The cheers for the host were as loud as those for the guests. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcomed the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, the second professional team to accept an invite from the Trump White House, to celebrate their 2016-17 Stanley Cup championship.
In town ahead of their Wednesday skate against the Washington Capitals, members of the back-to-back champs were greeted by a couple hundred fans in the East Room.
There was no jersey presented to Trump and the lone one in the room was a black Pens sweater with Sidney Crosby's No. 87 on the back. Owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle were with the team, and quickly became part of POTUS' routine.
Trump praised the Hockey Hall of Famer's golf game effusively, but not before he managed to put Burkle on the spot about their relationship.
"I want to proudly welcome the Pittsburgh Penguins' owners. First of all, he's a friend of mind for a long time, he's a great, great negotiator," Trump said, briefly adding an element of political humor to the proceedings. "Ron how about negotiating some of our horrible trade deals that they've made over? Here's what I want, oh, I would love to have Ron Burkle. And it's great to have you, Ron, but I really mean that, if you want to get involved in negotiating NAFTA, I like it."
The usual rounds of playful ribbing from the president were relatively uneventful, with Trump managing to get through Evgeni Malkin's name with no major hiccups.
Crosby, who'd been vocal about his feelings regarding the separation of sports and politics, had to be coaxed out of his corner spot to shake the president's hand onstage.
"Where's Kris? Boy, you look pretty young to me," Trump said. "What do they mean 'younger players'? Do they get younger than you? Very handsome group of people. In fact, I actually don't like standing in front of them. First thing you know -- we always like unattractive teams, right?"
After the news conference, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan took questions from reporters. It being their second consecutive visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, but their first during this administration, the Penguins made a statement two weeks ago, stating their intent to attend this event. That came a day after Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry said publicly that he didn't plan on going to the White House to celebrate the 2016-17 NBA championship. Trump then rescinded the offer.
"We have players on our roster from six different countries. So, each time you have an opportunity to visit the White House and see it up close and personal with its history and what the White House represents, to the United States, I think it certainly is a terrific experience," Sullivan said Tuesday. "I didn't feel any pressure; I don't think we felt any pressure because we've stated clearly from the get-go that our acceptance of an invitation to the White House was not political. ... As we've stated all along, we understand the circumstance surrounding this visit. We are very respectful of anyone's right to protest or demonstrate as they see fit. So, we're very respectful of that."
It's been a topic of discussion not just with the Stanley Cup champions, but across the NHL. Last week, former NHL player Georges Laraque criticized the decision of one of his former teams to go. And before that, Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler was critical of the president's tweets and was supported by two teammates. Yet, just this week, the Tampa Bay Lightning's J.T. Brown said he received death threats after raising his fist during "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Overall, Tuesday, an air of avoiding tension prevailed. Perhaps the most salient observation of the day, however, had come earlier, from the president himself, this time trying to coax Phil Kessel to shake hands in front of the camera.
"Come on, get over here, Phil," Trump said. "These guys don't want to be politicians. They shouldn't be. Don't be a politician."