BUFFALO — Devante Smith-Pelly was at a rookie tournament in British Columbia eight years ago when he first heard a fan yell that he should play basketball. Smith-Pelly, a black professional hockey player, immediately understood the implication, that someone of his skin color didn’t belong in this sport played mostly by whites. He was angry, but he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
On Saturday night in Chicago, Smith-Pelly took a seat in the penalty box. Four fans sitting against the glass and beside the box, in seats that cost $500 apiece for season ticket holders, chanted “basketball” at the Washington Capitals forward, and Smith-Pelly reacted. He notified the off-ice official sharing the penalty box with him, and he walked up to the glass with his stick to confront the fans. They were ejected from United Center.
“We’re at a time now where we can’t brush it under the rug,” Smith-Pelly said. “You’ve got to start calling people out and making sure people see other people’s true colors. That’s why I’m trying to get the conversation started and show, whoever these people were, their true colors.”
The incident, occurring against the backdrop of Black History Month and the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone campaign that promotes inclusiveness, highlighted the racial attitudes that still exist around hockey. During a 2011 preseason game in London, Ontario, a banana was thrown onto the ice during a shootout attempt by Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds, nine years after a banana was thrown at former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes in a 2002 playoff game in Montreal. When Joel Ward scored for the Capitals in overtime of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins during the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, angry fans flooded his social media with racially charged language and death threats.
As the league touts inclusion and growing the game, Saturday night’s events serve as a reminder that there is still a long way to go. Of more than 700 players in the NHL last season, fewer than 30 were black.
“It’s sad that in 2018 we’re still talking about the same thing over and over,” Smith-Pelly said. “It’s sad that athletes like myself 30, 40 years ago were standing in the same spot saying the same thing. You’d think there’d be some sort of change or progression, but we’re still working towards it, I guess. And we’re going to keep working towards it.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the Capitals organization both released statements Sunday afternoon condemning the racial taunts toward Smith-Pelly and supporting the prompt ejection of those fans.
“While this incident was isolated in nature, no player, coach, official or fan should ever have to endure such abuse at one of our games,” Bettman’s statement read. “The League will take steps to have our clubs remind all stakeholders that they are entitled to enjoy a positive environment — free from unacceptable, inappropriate, disruptive, inconsiderate or unruly behaviors or actions and may not engage in conduct deemed detrimental to that experience.”
On Monday, the Blackhawks said they have banned the offending fans from future games.
“We have contacted the select individuals involved in the incident on Saturday to notify them that they are no longer welcome at our home games,” a Blackhawks spokesman wrote in an email. “Racist comments and other inappropriate behavior are not tolerated by the Chicago Blackhawks.”
Though many on social media reacted with outrage and support for Smith-Pelly, there were also scores of tweets questioning if chanting “basketball” was truly racist, perhaps undermining the NHL’s reference that this was an “isolated” occurrence.
“I mean, it’s pretty obvious what that means,” Smith-Pelly said of the “basketball” comment. “It’s not really a secret. It’s just one word, and that’s all it takes, whether it’s that word or any other word. I got the idea.”
Said Capitals defenseman Madison Bowey: “It makes you sick to your stomach a little bit, but it’s part of the game, I guess.”
Bowey, who is biracial with a black father, wears the No. 22 as a tribute to Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player. Bowey’s father always warned him that he could face racism playing hockey, but Bowey said he has been “pretty fortunate” and hasn’t experienced that in his career to this point.
Anson Carter, a former NHL forward and current NBC analyst, called Saturday night’s incident “so sad” but also remarked that he is “never that surprised by this kind of thing.” Carter’s parents are from Barbados, and he often had racist comments hurled at him as a kid playing hockey in Toronto. He said he is most disappointed that four fans at United Center on Saturday night could cause all hockey fans to be painted with the same broad brush, potentially creating a damaging impression that all of the sport’s fans are racist. That won’t bring more diversity.
“It just brings light that we’ve still got a long way to go,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “From my standpoint, it’s disappointing. I know that for the 22,000 people at the game last night in Chicago, there were a lot, a lot, a lot of good people. And a few individuals keep bringing the ugly part of society out. That’s unfortunate.”