Smith-Pelly downplayed the return, saying “it was just a couple people” who behaved inappropriately and he doesn’t “hold it against the city.” “I wasn’t excited or nervous to come back here,” Smith-Pelly said. “It’s just another game.”
In February, 2018, the Blackhawks ejected the four fans who harassed Smith-Pelly in the penalty box and, a day later, banned them from the United Center for life.
The Capitals fell to the Blackhawks, 8-5. Smith-Pelly, one of about two dozen black players in a league of more than 700, typically plays on the fourth line. However Capitals coach Todd Reirden made Smith-Pelly a starter on Sunday, alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, so Smith-Pelly would be able to stand on the ice during the national anthem.
“For me, it was really something that was important to do,” Reirden said after the game. “What happened to him last year in this building, and where we are today in our world, and some of the things that he’s done in our community this year – just having another family out, not too long ago to our game. To me, that is fighting a bigger fight than we even know about, that Devante has to go through. So I thought it was a way to show our backing and our support for him, and that’s why I wanted to start him in the game tonight.”
Smith-Pelly played one shift with Ovechkin and Backstrom before returning to his regular slot. “I wanted to score first shift really, to be honest,” Smith-Pelly said. “It was just something nice that [Reirden] did for me. Honestly, I wanted to just have a decent shift and get the game going.”
The 26-year-old is in his eighth NHL season, and second with the Capitals. After scoring just seven goals last regular season, he emerged as an unlikely postseason hero with seven playoff goals, including two game-winners and six in the third period or overtime, as Washington won its first Stanley Cup.
The incident in Chicago last year included fans shouting “basketball! Basketball!” at Smith-Pelly, who grew up in Scarborough, Ontario. The coded language implied that Smith-Pelly did not belong in hockey, a predominantly white sport. Smith-Pelly said it was not the first time he was subject to racial taunts from fans, but it was the first time he felt comfortable speaking out about it. On Sunday, Smith-Pelly served a two minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct during the second period but said there were no issues with fans while he sat in the box.
“What happened in Chicago [last season] was eye-opening for a lot of our guys,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly told ESPN in October. “There’s nobody on our team who can relate to what [Smith-Pelly has] been through. We can be there for him and support him, but we’ll never really get it. He’s had to deal with it his whole life. That doesn’t make it easier, but it shows how he can handle it so positively, and with grace.”
Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom ran an email from a reader suggesting that Blackhawks fans donate to a charity of Smith-Pelly’s choosing as a gesture of apology. Smith-Pelly said he’d like money to go to Fort Dupont, the only full-size indoor ice arena in D.C. and home to the Cannons, the oldest minority youth hockey program in North America. As of October, the rink received $37,488 from more than 300 donors in Smith-Pelly’s name.
Earlier this month, Smith-Pelly and the Capitals hosted a 14-and-under travel team based in Maryland after they found out that one of their players was also the subject of racial taunts in a hockey game.
“I read it in the news and I was thinking about doing something and actually was approached by [John Carlson], who said, ‘Let’s invite these kids to the game and try to do something for them.'” Smith-Pelly said, according to NHL.com. “So, we came up with the idea just to have the whole team and meet the kids and say hello.”
Smith-Pelly said on Sunday that in the past year, he’s felt he has made strides in sharing his message on inclusivity, although “I don’t think I should need to do that, though. It’s still happening. I just try to help in any way I can.”