Devante Smith-Pelly got up from his seat.
The Washington Capitals forward had heard the unmistakably racist taunts from fans from inside the penalty box. As a black hockey player, he knew exactly what they meant by yelling, “Basketball, basketball, basketball!”
“It’s just ignorant people being ignorant,” Smith-Pelly said.
That scene unfolded in Chicago in February, 60 years after Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier and paved the way for more minorities to play the sport and reach its highest level. O’Ree is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday for his pioneering career, and yet incidents like the one Smith-Pelly went through show how much more progress needs to be made, in a league that’s 97 percent white and beyond.
“It’s come a long way, but there’s still a lot of things that still need to change,” Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse said. “That just comes through minorities as a group working together to try to eliminate those things from this game.”
Those things just keep happening.
In 2011, Philadelphia forward Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him during a preseason game in London, Ontario.
In 2012, then-Washington forward Joel Ward was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.
In 2014, then-Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.
In April, Detroit prospect Givani Smith was subjected to threats and racial taunts and messages after a junior game in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. His team had a police escort the next time they went to the rink.
“(O’Ree) had to go through a lot, and the same thing has been happening now, which obviously means there’s still a long way to go,” Smith-Pelly said. “If you had pulled a quote from him back then and us now, they’re saying the same thing, so obviously there’s still a long way to go in hockey and in the world if we’re being serious.”
Through his work as an NHL diversity ambassador over the past 20 years, O’Ree has tried to work toward more inclusion and better minority representation. He is eager to tell kids at YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and schools that hockey is another sport they can play.
USA Hockey and Hockey Canada don’t keep participation statistics by race, though there are fewer than two dozen black players currently on NHL rosters. The NHL celebrates “Hockey is for Everyone” month each season and quickly condemns racist behavior.
“A lot of it’s basically on your parents and how people raise their kids,” said San Jose forward Evander Kane, who acknowledged being the subject of racist taunting as the only black player on his minor league teams in Vancouver. “You can have all the awareness that you want, but at the end of the day, it’s really up to the individual and how they act and how they want to treat other people.”
O’Ree, 83, still remembers how he was treated in the ’50s as hockey’s Jackie Robinson. He did his best to drown out the noise by listening to his brother Richard.
“I heard the jeers and some of the racial remarks, but it kind of went in one ear and out the other,” O’Ree said. “He told me, ‘Willie, names will never hurt you unless you let them.’ He said, ‘If they can’t accept you for the individual that you are, just forget about it and just go out and do what you do best and don’t worry about anything else.’”
Nurse said black players still have to worry about racist jeers and remarks.
“I had a lot growing up and my brother had the big one too last year,” said Dallas forward Gemel Smith, Givani’s brother. “How we were raised, nothing really bothers me. That stuff doesn’t really get to me and things like that. My dad always taught us just to try to close it out, block it out.”
Like Smith-Pelly, Simmonds is quick to say racism isn’t an issue unique to hockey or sports in general. His solution is a zero tolerance policy, which is what happened to the four fans in Chicago who were thrown out and banned from all home games by the Blackhawks.
“I think what could be done to keep these types of incidents from happening would probably be to ban those people who are doing those lewd acts,” Simmonds said. “I think if you set a strong example right from the start, you won’t have too many people acting like clowns.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman, who is going into the Hall of Fame with O’Ree as part of the class of 2018, considers it important to make clear to fans and players what’s expected and what’s not tolerated and said: “Even if it’s only one incident, it’s one too many.” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said creating and cultivating an inclusive environment and building diversity are significant league priorities.
There has been incremental progress. In the aftermath of Smith-Pelly’s incident, fans in Chicago raised $23,000 to donate to the Fort Dupont Ice Rink in Washington, helping hundreds of children.
“When you see the reaction and the way that people rally around moments like that and try to make a positive out of it, I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Nurse said.
For some players like Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, hockey has been a safe place. The Blue Jackets defenseman said he has so far never been on the receiving end of race-based taunts or messages and said, “I was just like everybody else playing hockey, which is what everyone wants.”
Most black players haven’t been that fortunate. And while Jones is optimistic that people can change, Smith-Pelly wasn’t sure exactly how that will happen.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I don’t really know a plan to stop it. That’s how people are.”