BUFFALO, N.Y. — This wasn’t the first time Devante Smith-Pelly has had racial taunts directed at him during a hockey game.
And the Washington Capitals forward knew immediately what the intent of the message was when a few fans began chanting “basketball, basketball, basketball,” while Smith-Pelly sat in the penalty box during a 7-1 loss at Chicago on Saturday night. Smith-Pelly, a black player in a sport dominated by white athletes, heard a similar taunt years before while playing in a tournament in British Columbia.
“It’s pretty obvious what that means. It’s not really a secret,” Smith-Pelly said after the Capitals practiced in Buffalo on Sunday. “Whether it’s that word or any other word, I got the idea. And I’m sure they got the idea, too. Just one word, and that’s really all it takes.”
What stunned the 25-year-old is how incidents such as these keep happening.
“It’s disgusting,” Smith-Pelly said. “You’d think there would be some sort of change or progression, but we’re still working toward it, I guess, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”
The Blackhawks and United Center officials reacted swiftly by ejecting four fans shortly after an off-ice official sitting next to Smith-Pelly — serving a fighting major for a scrap with Chicago’s Connor Murphy — notified building security.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement Sunday, saying the league condemns the fans’ behavior as being “unacceptable and reprehensible.”
“While this was isolated in nature, no player, coach, official or fan should ever have to endure such abuse at one of our games,” Bettman said.
The Capitals released a statement saying they are “extremely disappointed by the intolerant behavior” by a select group of fans in Chicago.
In thanking the Blackhawks and arena security, the Capitals said: “It is crucial to confront such appalling conduct.”
The Blackhawks issued a statement apologizing to Smith-Pelly and the Capitals following the game, and said they “are committed to providing an inclusive environment.”
Video shows Smith-Pelly seated in the penalty box while looking and pointing to his left. He then gets up with his stick and gets into a verbal exchange with a male fan on other side of the glass.
Smith-Pelly said he stepped forward publicly to call out the fans for what they said because he didn’t want to “brush it under the rug.”
“I guess I’m trying to get the conversation started and show whoever these people were their true colors,” he said.
Joining the Capitals on their road trip, which concludes at Buffalo on Monday, are players’ fathers, allowing Smith-Pelly an opportunity to discuss what happened with his dad.
“We’ve had this conversation before,” said Smith-Pelly, who is from Toronto. “So he said, ‘It’s just a few idiots being ignorant.'”
Smith-Pelly has seven goals and nine assists in 54 games is in his first season with the Capitals. He has 40 goals and 53 assists in 320 regular-season games with in seven seasons with Anaheim, Montreal, New Jersey and the Capitals.
Capitals rookie defenseman Madison Bowey said what happened in Chicago made him “sick to my stomach.”
Assistant captain Brooks Orpik said: “I wish I could say it’s surprising but it’s probably not all that surprising.”
“I think no matter what you do, you’re going to find pockets of ignorance anywhere you go,” Orpik said. “Devo is as well liked as anyone in this room. I think it’s important for him to know that, and to know that everyone respects him a ton in this room.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz reiterated his post-game comments by saying there’s no place for racism in hockey or the country.
“For the 22,000 people in Chicago at the game last night, there were a lot, a lot, a lot of good people,” Trotz said. “And a few individuals keep bringing the ugly part of society out, and that was unfortunate.”
The fans’ taunts occurred during the NHL’s monthlong “Hockey is for Everyone ” campaign to promote the game as being inclusive for all players regardless of race, color, religion, national origin or gender. February is also Black History Month in the United States.
The NHL has had to previously deal with racial insults.
During the 2014 playoffs, the Boston Bruins denounced fans who posted racial comments on social media targeting then-Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, who is black, after he scored in double overtime.
In 2011, a fan was fined $200 after pleading guilty to engaging in a prohibited activity for throwing a banana on the ice at Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, who is black, during an exhibition game at London, Ontario