Nearly a year ago, Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly was sitting in the penalty box at Chicago’s United Center when a small group of fans began a racial taunt.
Smith-Pelly, who is black, was visibly upset when the fans chanted, “Basketball, basketball,” and walked over to talk to them. Four fans were ejected from that February 2018 game — and they were also barred from home games.
Capitals coach Todd Reirden made a statement on Sunday afternoon when he put Smith-Pelly in the starting lineup with stars Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin in Washington’s first trip to United Center since that incident.
“That, for me, was really something important to do (with) what happened with him last year in this building and where we are today in the world,” Reirden said after the 8-5 loss.
Smith-Pelly said he appreciated Reirden giving him the start.
“That was cool,” said Smith-Pelly. “I love the national anthem here.”
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Smith-Pelly, who went back to his usual line after that shift, has used last year’s incident to help others. Last week, he invited the Odenton, Maryland-based Metro Maple Leafs youth hockey team to a home game, providing 60 lower-bowl tickets, after they stood up against racism. The teammates had worn anti-racism stickers to support Divyne Apollon II, 13, who is black and was subjected to racial taunts in a tournament.
“To me, that is fighting a bigger fight than we even know about that Devante has to go through,” Reirden said of Smith-Pelly’s community outreach. “I thought (starting him) was a way to show our backing and our support for him.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report