TAMPA — Like everyone else in hockey, Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly saw the viral image of J.T. Brown raising his fist during the national anthem ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s game Saturday. Brown became the first NHL player to protest social inequality and police treatment of blacks in the United States during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Like very few others in the NHL, Smith-Pelly understood how hard it must have been for Brown to take that stand.
“You look in the [locker] room, it’s only me,” said Smith-Pelly, who like Brown is one of the league’s few black players, and the only nonwhite player on the Capitals. “You look at all the teams, it’s not people that look like me. That’s just the way it is right now. That’s not to say that the people on the team and guys in this room don’t think that’s the right thing to do, but it’s tough when I can’t look over and the guy beside me knows exactly what’s going on and exactly how I feel.
“That makes what [Brown] did even more respectable. He’s all by himself.”
Smith-Pelly and Brown are two of roughly 30 black players in the NHL, a league in which 93 percent of players identify as white. Smith-Pelly said he reached out to Brown after his protest to tell him he respected it.
The movement of silently protesting during the anthem started last year in the NFL when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began sitting and then kneeling during the anthem. Brown stood for the duration of the national anthem, simply raising his bare, closed right fist.
“I wanted to do something to show my support,” Brown told the Tampa Bay Times after the Lightning’s 5-4 loss to the Florida Panthers on Saturday. “There are some issues that we have to talk about. So, in my mind, just trying to bring a little more awareness, and any type of conversation that we can get started would be great. I know there’s going to be negative backlash. But, in my heart, I know I did what was right.”
Said Smith-Pelly: “He made sure to make the point that it’s not disrespecting the flag and making sure everyone knew his stance and making sure the point stayed the point rather than people straying away from what it really is. I thought he did a great job. I reached out to him and told him I loved what he did. I’m glad he did it.”
Smith-Pelly spoke to Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur two weeks ago, describing that “lonely feeling,” being the only black player in a locker room. He’s new to the Capitals, signing with the team in July and only really getting to know most of the players since the start of training camp last month. Smith-Pelly was fighting to secure his spot on the roster in the preseason, but after Arthur’s column, several of his new teammates approached him.
“A good amount of guys read the article and said, ‘Hey, if you want to do something, we’re here with you,’ ” Smith-Pelly said. “Same with the coaches. They said, ‘If you want to do anything, we’re here.’ So, that felt good for me, a little less lonely. It felt good to know that my team has my back if I decide to do anything.”
Smith-Pelly said he has considered protesting during the anthem, but he is “not too sure” whether he will take that step. He did not protest before Monday night’s game.
“If I feel like that’s the right thing to do, I definitely would do that,” Smith-Pelly said. “I wouldn’t be afraid to stand up if I felt that was the correct thing to do. As of this moment, I’m not sure, but it’s crossed my mind for sure.”
When recently asked about protests during the anthem, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said that in the United States, “we get to speak our piece, if you will, without sometimes ramifications. In other countries, there’s dire consequences if you speak up. That’s the gift of living in the United States and people can express it, and I’ll support anybody for that. But I do think that, me personally, we’re honoring the flag. We’re maybe not honoring some of the things that are going on in our country.”
In the days since Brown’s protest, he released a statement on Twitter that said he has received death threats. He didn’t address the media after Tampa Bay’s morning skate Monday and, after being scratched in the Lightning’s first game of the regular season, he was not in Tampa Bay’s lineup Monday night. Forward Ryan Callahan spoke on behalf of the team earlier Monday.
“I think the biggest thing is you’ve got 25 different guys in here,” Callahan said. “Everyone is going to a different opinion, a different belief, everybody comes from different backgrounds, upbringing. So whether you agree or disagree with what he’s doing, I think as a team we support him. We support [Brown] as we would on the ice and as we do off the ice. He has a right to do that and that’s our biggest thing in here. We have his back just as we would on the ice.”
Smith-Pelly said that while “it sucks to hear” Brown received death threats, he wasn’t surprised. Protests from players across the NFL intensified after President Trump called on league owners last month to fire or suspend players who did not stand for the anthem. On Sunday, Vice President Pence and his wife, Karen, left Lucas Oil Stadium after members of the visiting 49ers knelt during the anthem before their game against the Indianapolis Colts. President Trump said on Twitter that Pence was following his instructions that he should leave if players protested during the anthem.
“With the protesting, you see a lot of people kind of coming out and showing that it’s there,” Smith-Pelly said. “I think before Kaepernick, it was obviously always there, but you could hide it. But at this point when people are getting away from the point of what people are saying, it’s not about the flag. It’s about racial injustice and stuff like that. When people are still saying, ‘No, that’s not what it’s about,’ that’s showing their true colors. So, at this point, it’s something that you have to keep doing until something changes.”
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