Racism lingers for play­ers 60 years after O’Ree land­mark

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY STEPHEN WHYNO As­so­ci­ated Press

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 Wil­lie O’Ree 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,” SmithPelly 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.


Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals right wing De­vante Smith-Pelly ar­gues from the penalty box with Black­hawks fans dur­ing a Feb. 17 game in Chicago. Smith-Pelly said he heard fans yelling “Bas­ket­ball, bas­ket­ball, bas­ket­ball,” and as a black hockey player, he knew the mean­ing be­hind those ra­cial taunts.

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