In February, four Blackhawks fans who were sitting next to the penalty box let Washington Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly know that he was playing the wrong sport, in their estimation, by repeatedly chanting “basketball.”
Five months later, Smith-Pelly lifted the Stanley Cup over his head and skated around the ice as the Captials became Stanley Cup champions.
And the Stanley Cup Final was the most watched Cup Final since 2015, when the Blackhawks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, according to SportsMediaWatch.com.
As I saw Smith-Pelly embrace his teammates, and then his family, I thought of those fans who thought that Smith-Pelly didn’t belong. After all, those fans chanted a word that’s considered a racial slur toward black players in hockey circles.
Think of the timing of those fans who were permanently banned by the Blackhawks from attending hockey games at the United Center.
They did this during Black History Month and Hockey Is For Everyone, an effort by the NHL to make hockey more inclusive to kids from all backgrounds. Before the game, the Blackhawks honored the memory of Chicago Police Cmdr. Paul Bauer, who was murdered two days earlier.
Racism makes people say, tweet and do stupid things. And the sport has a long problem with racism.
Cecil Harris, who wrote “Breaking the Ice: The Black experience in professional hockey,” called the sport’s struggle with racism the “silent shame.”
“It’s sad that in 2018 we’re still talking about the same thing over and over,” Smith-Pelly told the Washington Post after the incident at the United Center. “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 toward it, I guess. And we’re going to keep working toward it.”
Since Smith-Pelly’s incident, several incidents in hockey and other sports have been brought to light.
A youth hockey player in Canada was the victim of racial slurs and a Detroit Red Wings prospect needed a police escort after fans yelled epithets at him during a game.
And in April, I reported that a West Lawn Little League baseball team comprised of Latino players were called “Taco Boys” ahead of a game at Kennedy Park. A coach and several players were suspended for their behavior.
It’s not surprising that these incidents continue to happen, especially when our president has a tough time deciding what constitutes racism. After all, his response to the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year was this:
“You have some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
Whether President Trump realizes it or not, his non-answer answers on racism allow people who’ve engaged in racist behavior, along with those who cape for them, to minimize the damage done by their actions.
For instance, USA Hockey recently hired former NHL goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck as its assistant executive director of hockey operations. In 2003, Vanbiesbrouck resigned as GM and coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for using a racial slur to describe Trevor Daley, a former Blackhawks defenseman. The Athletic NHL reported that Daley was not only consulted about the hire, he was livid.
USA Hockey spoke to Vanbiesbrouck about what he said to Daley back then.
“He’s going to have to live with the mistake, and he’s dedicated himself to be a person that can be highly valued,” executive director Pat Kelleher told reporters on a conference call when announcing the hire.
I think of what those fans said that day, along Kelleher’s poor choice of words because I don’t want Smith-Pelly’s moment to be seen as some sort of comeuppance for their behavior that night. I want those individuals to use that moment as an educational tool.
I want them to learn from their behavior that night. And it should never be described as a “mistake.”
A mistake is hitting “publish” on a Word Press document when you meant to hit “save draft’ instead.
After all, Devante Smith-Pelly, by all accounts, is playing in the right sport.