Divyne Apollon II walked into the Washington Capitals' locker room after Monday night’s game against the St. Louis Blues with his head held high, surrounded by his Metro Maple Leafs teammates. It was only weeks earlier that Apollon was the victim of racist taunts during his youth hockey tournament when his teammates stepped in to defend him on the ice.
And while the vitriol directed at Apollon by the opposing team may never fade from the minds of the kids, Monday night, laughter, excitement and shock engulfed the room.
After being personally invited by the Capitals’ John Carlson and Devante Smith-Pelly to attend Monday’s game , Apollon and his teammates on the 14-and-under travel hockey club based at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, Md., were face-to-face with players they hope to one day emulate. It was a moment brought about from a negative interaction, but resulted in an inspirational message from a group of kids who just want to play hockey.
“Don’t worry about it,” Apollon said as a message to other kids who have faced similar taunts. “If you want to play the game, play it. ”
Carlson, who originally had the idea to invite the kids to the game, spoke in front of them and expressed his appreciation and respect for the team. Smith-Pelly, who was subject to a racist taunt last season while he sat in the penalty box during a game against the Chicago Blackhawks, also spoke to Apollon and his teammates, as did captain Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby, Brooks Orpik, Jakub Vrana, Travis Boyd and Madison Bowey.
“You guys are the future, and by doing what you did you are standing up for each other and standing up for yourselves,” Carlson told them. “That’s what we need to move forward … you guys are just kids. You made things right. ”
While the incident became part of the national news cycle, for Apollon, the only black player on his team, the taunts haven’t discouraged him from continuing to pursue his hockey goals. It’s only strengthened his will to keep playing, which he has done since he was 8 years old. Apollon, who got to speak to Smith-Pelly directly, said the forward told him to “keep my head up and don’t worry about things like that. ”
When Apollon’s teammates were asked why they decided to stand up for Apollon, the tone of the responses were in harmony.
“Because he’s our teammate. ”
“We support all our teammates. ”
One of Apollon’s teammates, Sam Abramson, said he’s happy the group stood up for him and that they’re all excited to get back on the ice to play their next game.
“At first it was really bad, but then it turned into some big movement so people realize it is not okay to make fun of people,” Abramson said. “You treat everyone the way you want to be treated.”
The Capitals players haven’t been the only NHLers to express their support and appreciation to the Metro Maple Leafs. Nashville Predators star P.K. Subban also sent a message of support to Apollon, who received three hockey sticks from Ovechkin, Carlson and Smith-Pelly on Monday night.
"I just think it was kind of inspiring how they all stuck together,” Carlson said. “That’s great for kids, especially. They’re not that old yet. They haven’t seen too much yet. To stick up for each other, to stand up for each other. I’m sure it was only a matter of time. ”
Smith-Pelly said he went through similar incidents when he was younger and as last season’s situation in Chicago proved, it still happens today. He added that one thing that stood out to him was how the team as a whole, as kids, were fighting for their friend and had Apollon’s back. Not only did the Capitals want to recognize Apollon, but the rest of his team, as well.
“I think the message would be there are people who think that way and it is a pretty close-minded, dumb way to think,” Smith-Pelly said. “The message I think is that it is amazing you guys stood up and you guys have the right mind-set and you guys aren’t falling into the trap of thinking the way the other kids did, so I think to Divyne, obviously it is garbage and keep your head up and keep playing. ”
Metro Maple Leafs Coach Brad Howington said it was “devastating” to hear Apollon describe the racist slurs being hurled at him during the tournament, but he was proud of the way Apollon handled the situation. Howington described Apollon as a big teddy bear and a “big kid with a big heart,” and said all members of the team, including the parents, have since handled the incident with great poise.
“Being a black player myself and growing up with it, it is not something that shocks me completely either because I know that is what happens,” Howington said. “But when he approached me with it, I was devastated, but understanding of it and [it was] not surprising, which is also a bad part that it wasn’t surprising to me, because it should be surprising to me.”
Howington said Carlson’s involvement was an encouraging moment, as a sign of togetherness and understanding.
“Him to step up as a white player with Devante, I don’t even know what to say,” Howington said of Carlson. “It is great that he did that, showing his support and somebody else other than the black player in the organization having to step up is just great. It’s like that white friend of yours when something like that happens, tapping on your shoulder and saying, ‘This is okay, I’m still with you. Not everyone in the world is like this.’ ”
Read more on the Capitals: