Leafs’ Matthews says protesting during anthem dishonours flag

Toronto Maple Leaf centre Auston Matthews. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

TORONTO — Auston Matthews says while American athletes have the right to protest during the U.S. national anthem, he will not be taking a knee along with them.

The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ 20-year-old star forward from Arizona said he feels it is disrespectful to kneel, sit or otherwise publicly protest during pre-game renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

He says he feels it’s "a dishonour" to members of the military who "fight for the flag," pointing out that he has an uncle and other friends and family members who have served their country.

"I don’t think I’d be one of the people who would take part in that," he said at training camp.

At least 200 NFL players either knelt, sat, stretched or prayed during pre-game anthems on Sunday as part of a protest against racial inequality in the U.S. that gathered steam when President Donald Trump castigated protesting players, going so far as to tell team owners to "get that son of a bitch off the field.

Matthews, who admits he’s not a "big politics guy," says he understands athletes using a platform to "send a message."

But he also supported the Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent decision to accept an invitation to the White House to celebrate their latest Stanley Cup championship, and said if the Maple Leafs were in that position that they would "probably go."

Hockey players aren’t generally known for getting involved in politics and have remained fairly quiet about the controversy so far.

Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler, an American, did have a message for Trump via Twitter on Sunday.

"Regardless of how it makes you feel individually, these are literally the principles the US was founded on," he wrote. "Come on, Mr. President."

At practice Monday, Wheeler said he and his wife had been in a "slow boil" over the anthem debate and that it "felt right to kind of take a stance."

When asked about the Penguins’ decision, he said: "They’re the champs. They can do as they feel. You win the whole thing, that’s your decision. You have to respect their ability to choose."

He would not object if a teammate elected to protest and said it was "great" that Jets players have been discussing the issue, adding that it was rare to hear "political talk" in an NHL dressing room.

Jets coach Paul Maurice said he chooses to stand during the anthems, but he supports Wheeler’s right to voice his opinion.

"The simple rule in our locker-room is the players can say whatever they want," said Maurice. "If you want to take a stand and make a point, you should feel free."