CHICAGO — Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly went to the penalty box after a fight 8:36 into the third period Saturday night at United Center, and four fans sitting against the glass of the box chanted “Basketball, basketball, basketball!” at him, according to a team spokesman. Smith-Pelly is black.
Smith-Pelly reacted, confronting the fans through the glass while holding his stick. An off-ice official sitting next to him in the penalty box notified building security, and the fans were kicked out of the arena. Smith-Pelly didn’t speak with reporters after Washington’s 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
“There’s absolutely no place in the game of hockey or our country for racism,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said after the game. “I think it’s disgusting, and there’s no place for it. Athletes in our country don’t deserve that. It just shows ignorance.”
Trotz said Smith-Pelly was “upset” after the game, so he hadn’t yet spoken to him, but some teammates met with Smith-Pelly after the game. February is the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone month, a campaign by the league that emphasizes inclusion.
“We were made aware of an incident at tonight’s game involving a small group of attendees who made harmful comments directed at Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly,” the Blackhawks said in a statement. “The fans were immediately removed and we apologize to Smith-Pelly and the Washington Capitals organization. We are committed to providing an inclusive environment for everyone who attends out games and these actions will never be tolerated.”
Two nights ago, Smith-Pelly squirted water toward a fan who was heckling him in the penalty box.
Smith-Pelly is one of roughly 30 black players in the NHL, and he and defenseman Madison Bowey are the only black players on the Capitals. This is far from the first incident of racism in the NHL. In a 2011 preseason game in London, Ontario, a fan threw a banana at Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds during a shootout attempt. After Joel Ward scored a Game 7 overtime playoff winner for the Capitals in Boston in 2012, his social media was flooded with racially charged language and death threats.
As players in other leagues, most notably the NFL, took a knee or sat during the national anthem over the past year, a movement started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest social inequality and police treatment of blacks in the United States, Smith-Pelly said he considered making a similar statement. Then-Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown raised his fist during the national anthem before a game earlier this season, and at the time, Smith-Pelly explained why he respected Brown for taking a stand.
“You look at all the teams; it’s not people that look like me,” Smith-Pelly said in October. “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.”