Capitals playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly has his sights set on another Cup -- and on changing his sport

Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly is one of 24 black players in the NHL this season. "Devante isn't there because he's black," says Hall of Famer Willie O'Ree, who broke the league's color barrier in 1958. "He's there because he's a good hockey player." Greg Kahn for ESPN

In the third period of a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 17, Washington Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly took umbrage at a hit on teammate T.J. Oshie. A couple of shifts later, Smith-Pelly did what many fourth-liners are trained to: He honed in on the offender, Chicago defenseman Connor Murphy. Smith-Pelly initiated eye contact, and both players chucked their gloves. They exchanged punches before Smith-Pelly pinned Murphy down, smothering him on the ice. Officials separated them, and both players dutifully skated off to serve matching five-minute penalties.

Smith-Pelly settled into the penalty box, removed his helmet and took a sip of water. That's when he heard the jeers. A guy sitting next to the glass was chanting, "Go play bas-ket-ball! Bask-et-ball! Bask-et-ball!" Several other fans joined in. Smith-Pelly turned to the NHL official manning the box. "Am I hearing things?" he asked. "Or is that really what they're saying?"

"Yeah," the official responded. "I hear it too."

It wasn't the first time Smith-Pelly, who is black, had heard racial taunts directed at him during a hockey game. But this was the first time he responded. He grabbed his stick and lunged toward the glass, shouting back at the fans. One of them stood up; his voice escalated as he pointed his finger at Smith-Pelly. A second man stood, and others started waving at Smith-Pelly.

Back home in Toronto, Jacqueline Smith watched on television as the incident unfolded. Her husband and Devante's father, Wayne Pelly, was at the arena -- it was the Capitals' annual dads' trip -- so she texted him. "Something is wrong with Devo," Smith wrote. Pelly caught a glimpse of the replay on a TV in the arena. "The second I saw the stick in [Devante's] hand," Pelly says. "I knew what it was. I knew the only thing that would get him that upset."

Pelly met his son outside the locker room right after the game. They hugged, and Pelly simply said: "Tough game." He knew that the coded language, implying that Smith-Pelly didn't belong in hockey, a majority-white sport, was just as hurtful as any racial slur -- and that he could offer his son no comfort besides just being there. Blackhawks officials rushed over to apologize to Smith-Pelly and told him that the fans had been ejected. The next day they announced that all four would be banned from Blackhawks home games for life.

Smith-Pelly was too upset to discuss the incident that night. "I would've said something dumb, something I regret," he says now. But he had composed himself enough to address it the next day, when the team arrived in Buffalo. "It's disgusting. It's sad that in 2018 we're still talking about the same thing, over and over," he said. "It's sad that athletes like myself were saying the same thing 30, 40 years ago. You'd think there'd be some sort of change or progression, but we're still working toward it, I guess. And we're going to keep working toward it."

Smith-Pelly, one of 24 black players in a league of more than 700, prefers not to make his race a point of emphasis. He'd rather talk about what he does on the ice. After all, the twice-traded 26-year-old -- who was not even a lock to make Washington's opening-night roster last fall -- went on to etch himself into franchise lore during the Capitals' march to their first Stanley Cup. He had seven postseason goals, including two game-winners and six in the third period or overtime, and his equalizer in Game 5 set the stage for Lars Eller's Cup-winner.

But as the ugly incident in Chicago showed, race remains an issue in hockey, and Smith-Pelly is often subjected to questions his white teammates aren't. Last October, reporters covering the team asked: Are you going to kneel during the national anthem? (He did not.) Last November, a "Saturday Night Live" skit addressed hockey's lack of diversity head on. Chance the Rapper, playing a Knicks reporter who is forced to fill in for a colleague at a New York Rangers game, was asked to analyze a play. After noting that all the players on the ice were white, he pointed to a person in the crowd: "There is a black hockey fan!" he said, incredulously. "So I will be talking to him at the postgame show and find out what's going on there."

In June, before the Capitals had even clinched the Cup against the Vegas Golden Knights, Smith-Pelly was the only player on either team asked if he would visit the White House. His response, which he says he thought was off the record -- that he would not visit because he did not agree with President Donald Trump's "racist and sexist remarks" -- went viral, and Smith-Pelly instantly regretted his candor.

"I wish I didn't say it, because it became a big deal. If we lost, that quote would have stuck with me, like I jinxed us. I could've scored 10 goals and they wouldn't want me back," he says. "I understand why they have to ask me these things. You can't ask Ovi what it's like being a black guy in the States. Only I can answer ... but it's just my opinion. Just one guy's opinion."

It was not lost on Smith-Pelly that the taunting incident happened in February, the designated month for the NHL's "Hockey Is For Everyone" initiative, which aims to promote the game as being inclusive for all players regardless of race, color, religion, national origin or gender -- as well as Black History Month.

But Smith-Pelly and other black players say that hockey is welcoming -- within the confines of the locker room. "I've never not felt included on a team," says veteran NHLer Chris Stewart, who is a mentor to Smith-Pelly. "Hockey is our safe space. Everyone is out there with their helmet on, and the color of your skin doesn't matter when you're playing hockey. That's the s----iest part about what happened to Devo in Chicago, that they were able to take that away from him in that moment."

Growing up as the oldest of two boys in Scarborough, just outside of Toronto, Smith-Pelly wasn't worried about fitting in. He was too busy standing out. He was a handful, always scurrying around the house. If the family went out to eat, Smith-Pelly's parents prepaid the bill; their toddler son didn't have the patience to sit at the table for long. Wayne Pelly had been a highly-touted youth hockey player himself in Toronto. But, like many middle-class families, his parents struggled to keep up with the financial demands of hockey. "The sport was becoming cost prohibitive," Pelly says. So at age 15, he told his mother: "I'll pick another sport, because hockey seems like it's too much." Pelly switched to basketball, and went on to win three consecutive national basketball championships at Brandon University in Manitoba.

Pelly, who runs a limousine company, and Smith, who works in corporate communications, wanted their children to try a variety of sports. Smith-Pelly also played basketball, lacrosse and volleyball, but he especially took to soccer and hockey. Juggling the demands of both sports at a high level eventually became too much for the family, so Smith-Pelly was asked which sport he preferred. Hockey it was.

"Most black families don't think of hockey as a sport they'd put their kid in," Smith says. "But Devo always fit in with whomever. The kids never make it an issue. Only people outside do."

Scarborough has produced a number of black NHL players, including Stewart, his brother Anthony, former goalie Kevin Weekes and current Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds. They each trained with Smith-Pelly over the summer and helped steer him on a track toward the NHL -- encouraging him to stick with it even as he saw fewer and fewer players who looked like him as he rose through the ranks.

"There were other black players in [youth leagues] -- almost every team had a guy -- so growing up that was just normal," Smith-Pelly says. "As I moved up, I'd see a little bit less [black players], and a little bit less. Guys were just disappearing."

Smith-Pelly didn't disappear -- in fact, he starred in junior hockey, where he first began his pattern of coming up clutch and scoring big goals during the postseason.

"The buzz around him was that he was a big, physical kid," says Dave Cameron, his coach with the OHL's Mississauga St. Michael's Majors, where Smith-Pelly led the league with 15 goals in 20 playoff games. "But his hands were an underrated part of his game. Kid had a knack for scoring."

The Anaheim Ducks drafted Smith-Pelly in the second round of the NHL draft in 2010. A year later, he made the Ducks' opening night roster as a 19-year-old. Smith-Pelly was so young that his parents had to co-sign the lease at his Newport Beach apartment.

Over the next few seasons, the 6-foot, 223-pound Smith-Pelly found his footing in the league, establishing himself as a grinding power forward who was willing to block shots and battle in the corners. Then came his breakout performance in the 2014 playoffs, when -- while playing on the Ducks' top line alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry -- Smith-Pelly led Anaheim with five goals in 12 games. He agreed to a two-year, $1.6 million deal with the Ducks during the offseason and bought a car, figuring he'd stay in Anaheim for a while. But the Ducks wanted to add a faster skill player, so he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens the following February.

The Montreal coaching staff toyed with Smith-Pelly's role but never gave him top minutes -- and the next season he was traded again, this time to the New Jersey Devils. He was learning that once the team that drafted you gives up on you, it's difficult to win over any others. After rebounding to score 13 points in 18 games following his deadline acquisition, Smith-Pelly signed a two-year, $2.6 million extension with the Devils. But the next season, things spiraled downward again. A knee injury that had flared up in Montreal worsened. "It was probably my fault for not dealing with it earlier," he says. "I didn't want it to be like I was quitting, but it got to the point where I couldn't even skate." He figured he'd rehab over the summer and come back stronger the next season. Then, the day before free agency began, he got a call from Devils general manager Ray Shero, who told Smith-Pelly that New Jersey was buying out his contract. Smith-Pelly was only 25 and had been jettisoned by his third team.

The timing sent Smith-Pelly scrambling; most teams already had their free-agency plans locked. The Capitals were one of the few teams that came calling. Smith-Pelly called Capitals players Tom Wilson and Brett Connolly, whom he trains with in Toronto each summer. "Be honest," he said. "Do I have a decent shot at making the lineup?" Both players assured Smith-Pelly that he'd have as good a chance as anyone -- and, more important, that he would be a good fit with the team.

The Capitals saw the signing as low risk. "I knew he'd had a couple of issues with a couple of different organizations," Capitals GM Brian MacLellan says. "We took a chance on him. He didn't want to fail with another organization, because he knew he could be done as a player."

Smith-Pelly agreed to the one-year, league-minimum deal, with a significant pay cut if he was sent to the minors -- and no guarantees. But he brought all of his belongings to Washington anyway. "In my mind, there was no way I wasn't making the team," he says. By proving himself indispensable on the penalty kill in camp, Smith-Pelly beat out six players for a spot on Washington's opening-night roster.

For the first time in his career, Smith-Pelly felt as if he had clear expectations from his coaching staff and knew his role. He also felt a real camaraderie with his teammates in Washington, who enjoyed hanging out with one another off the ice too. On the road, team dinners would include upward of 15 players; it hadn't been like that other places.

After the taunting incident in February, Smith-Pelly explained that he had heard similar insults while playing in a rookie tournament in British Columbia shortly after he was drafted by the Ducks. As he walked off the ice, fans shouted: "Go play basketball!" Smith-Pelly was just as furious then. But he was a rookie trying to make the NHL, a teenager who didn't yet understand the power of his voice, so he didn't tell anyone. "I just let it go," he says.

This time, he spoke up. Smith-Pelly said he stepped forward publicly to call out the fans for what they said because he didn't want to "brush it under the rug."

His teammates rallied around him. Many say that for every publicized incident like the one in February, there are dozens of others that aren't.

"What happened in Chicago was eye-opening for a lot of our guys," Connolly says. "There's nobody on our team who can relate to what he's been through. We can be there for him and support him, but we'll never really get it. He's had to deal with it his whole life. That doesn't make it easier, but it shows how he can handle it so positively, and with grace."

Fellow black players reached out. Simmonds, who had a banana peel thrown at him during an exhibition game in 2011, called Smith-Pelly to say: "You did the right thing, standing up." Two weeks later, Smith-Pelly met Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first black player, who broke the league's color barrier in 1958. O'Ree, who has served as the NHL's diversity ambassador for two decades, told him: "Names will never hurt you, unless you let them."

The groundswell of support got Smith-Pelly thinking about how to use his newfound platform. After Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom ran an email from a reader suggesting that Blackhawks fans donate to a charity of Smith-Pelly's choosing as a gesture of apology, Smith-Pelly said he'd like money to go to Fort Dupont, the only full-size indoor ice arena in D.C. and home to the Cannons, the oldest minority youth hockey program in North America. Smith-Pelly chose the charity because he and teammates Madison Bowey and Brooks Orpik had hosted the Cannons at the Capitals' practice facility earlier that week, and the experience resonated with him. "Even though I was new, all the kids knew who I was," he says. "Because I looked like them."

To date, the rink has received $37,488 from more than 300 donors. "There is so much kids can learn about life through hockey," said Neal Henderson, who founded the program in his driveway in 1977. It now serves close to 50 players ages 8 to 18 each year at no charge; participants are required to maintain good grades and be respectful."I love being a role model and being in a city where there a lot of black kids," Smith-Pelly said after re-upping with Washington in June. "I saw a lot of black people in general at the [championship] parade. To be a part of that and hopefully grow the game in the DMV area, me being a part of that, it feels good. They've embraced me."

Smith-Pelly recognizes that there is still work to be done. The NHL has had only one black head coach and has never had a black GM. But two touchstone moments last spring showed that times, and perceptions, are changing. O'Ree, 82, will finally be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 12. And Smith-Pelly's critical goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final -- in which he seemingly flew through the air, a la Bobby Orr, before slamming the puck into the net to tie the score in the decisive game midway through the final period -- has already become iconic in D.C. His success on such a big stage has resonated within Washington's black community. Ralph Featherstone, who coaches at Fort Dupont, says his youth players feel as if they personally know Smith-Pelly because they skated with him. "It makes this NHL dream feel very real for them," Featherstone says. "But whether they play hockey or do something else, he set the example that they can set lofty goals and achieve them."

As Smith-Pelly circled the ice in Las Vegas last June, basking in his and his team's loftiest achievement and flashing his signature front-toothless grin, O'Ree found himself smiling too. "It's great for young boys and girls to see someone on that stage who looks like them," O'Ree says. "But Devante isn't there because he's black. He's there because he's a good hockey player."