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Caps’ Devante Smith-Pelly starts 1st game at United Center since racist taunts

Washington Capitals right wing Devante Smith-Pelly skates with the puck. | AP Photo/Nick Wass

Devante Smith-Pelly, the Capitals forward who was the target of racist taunts during a game at the United Center last year, found himself in the starting lineup for the team’s return to Chicago to face the Blackhawks on Sunday.

The move gave Smith-Pelly, one of the few black players in the NHL, a chance to stand on the ice alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the national anthem. After the game, Capitals coach Todd Reirden said that his goal was to show the forward how much he’s welcomed and appreciated in the hockey world.

“For me, it was really something that was important to do,” Reirden said, via ESPN. “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.

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“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.”

Last February, four fans at the United Center were ejected and subsequently banned for shouting racist taunts at Smith-Pelly during a game. A Capitals spokesperson said at the time that the fans chanted “basketball, basketball, basketball” at the forward. Afterwards, then-coach Barry Trotz called the incident “disgusting” and said it left Smith-Pelly “a little bit upset.” Less than five months later, the Capitals and Smith-Pelly won the Stanley Cup.

Smith-Pelly has since gone on to use his experience to help others in the hockey community. Last week, Smith-Pelly and his teammate, John Carlson, welcomed a youth hockey team to a Capitals game after one of its players had been the victim of racist slurs from an opposing team, which led his teammates to come to his defense.