Capitals’ Smith-Pelly, a black champion in a white league, embraces being a role model
A critical Game 5 goal in the Stanley Cup Final cemented the Washington Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly as one of the heroes of the NHL postseason. But Smith-Pelly’s moment – a dazzling score that tied the decisive game midway through the final period – resonated particularly loudly in Washington’s black community.
Ralph Featherstone, who coaches at Fort Dupont Ice Arena, the only full-size public ice rink in Washington, called the emergence of Smith-Pelly, a 26-year-old black Canadian who has logged seven seasons in an overwhelmingly white league, “an inspiration.”
“There have been black players in the NHL since Willie O’Ree, but we haven’t had the opportunity to see them on the bigger stage and not just be there, but actually contribute,” Featherstone said, referencing O’Ree, the league’s first black player, who was selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame this week.
Featherstone’s young players took notice of Smith-Pelly, as well.
“It’s inspiring to see somebody like us, who came from a similar place as us, do something like that and get that accomplishment,” said Noah Pettiford, 13.
After Smith-Pelly’s playoff performance – which included seven goals, matching his regular-season total – his impact on black hockey fans became a talking point.
“Culturally, the significance is undeniable to Washington, D.C., specifically,” Clinton Yates of The Undefeated wrote in a piece entitled, “The significance of a Stanley Cup champion named Devante.” “At one point in the series the home crowd was chanting his name, a sight I thought I’d never see in my life.”
But just three weeks after those “DSP” chants took over Capital One Arena, the team announced that it would not qualify the pending restricted free agent by Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline, setting Smith-Pelly to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. His future with the defending Stanley Cup champions appeared murky.
The news was met with some outrage from black Capitals fans.
“It feels like a betrayal,” said College Park, Maryland, resident LaTanya Anderson, who has followed the team for 46 years.
On Wednesday, their concerns were eased, when Smith-Pelly agreed to return to Washington on a one-year, $1 million extension.
“The money is not that important if I can be happy in one place,” Smith-Pelly said.
“I love being a role model and being in a city where there are a lot of black kids. I saw a lot of black people, in general, at the parade,” he continued. “To be a part of that and hopefully grow the game in the D.C. and DMV area feels good. Like I said, they’ve embraced me and I want to get back to the city that welcomed me in. Hopefully I continue to maybe change the game and help some kids out.”
He has already helped plenty of local kids.
“DSP’s presence on the team and coming up big in big times and being a steady player for them has helped minorities see that they could potentially be a player and that hockey is a game for everyone,” said Ty Newberry, executive director at Fort Dupont.
It’s hard for children, particularly children of color, to aspire to be something if they don’t see themselves represented, Newberry said.
“If you don’t see it, you can’t be it,” he said. “Now, kids of color are seeing someone who looks like them participate in a sport and be very successful.”
In February, Smith-Pelly found a way to give even more to Fort Dupont. A week after four Chicago Blackhawks fans were ejected from United Center for yelling racist remarks at Smith-Pelly, Chicago resident John Simpson suggested that fans donate money to a charity of Smith-Pelly’s choice.
He chose Fort Dupont, and the money raised helped put more than 3,000 children on the ice at no cost or with a scholarship. The Capitals star has also carved out personal time for the folks at the organization.
“Earlier in the year, we practiced at Kettler and he was one of the skaters who was on the ice with us,” Featherstone said. “He took pictures with us – I got one with him and my son. We talk a lot about favorite players and folks, they can look up to him. He is definitely one of those guys.”
Smith-Pelly further endeared himself to the community when he announced that he would not visit President Donald Trump and the White House if the Capitals won the Stanley Cup because he did not agree with Trump’s “racist and sexist remarks.”
“(He’s) a few steps removed from a legend here,” said Ifeanyi Uzoukwu, who lived in Washington until March and was raised a Capitals fan. “He scored the tying goal in the clinching game in dramatic fashion. And then when it came time to take a stand for black lives by choosing not to visit the president, he knew what to do.”
That community is now ready for his return.
“I’m glad he’ll be staying here another year so his play can gain more popularity around here,” Uzoukwu said. “I won’t be surprised if his tying goal from Game 5 gets printed on shirts soon.”