February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the accomplishments of African-American leaders in the United States. It's also "Hockey is for Everyone" month, an annual way for the NHL to promote its inclusiveness.
Yet as Devante Smith-Pelly stood in Buffalo on Sunday and described the feeling of racial taunts being directed his way, it was again clear the United States and hockey have a long way to go.
The Washington Capitals forward arrived for practice in KeyBank Center fresh off a disturbing incident Saturday night in Chicago. As Smith-Pelly, who is black, sat in the United Center penalty box, fans chanted, "Basketball, basketball," at him.
It clearly inferred Smith-Pelly was playing the wrong sport because of his color.
"Just one word, I mean, that's all it takes whether it's that word or any other word," said Smith-Pelly, who will join the Capitals in playing the Sabres on Monday afternoon. "I got the idea, and I'm sure they got the idea. It's just one word, and I guess that's really all it takes.
"It's disgusting. I don't even really know. It's sad that in 2018 we're still talking about the same thing over and over. It's sad that athletes like myself 30, 40 years ago were standing in the same spot saying the same thing. You 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."
Unfortunately, it's not the first time Smith-Pelly has heard the comment. It happened while he was playing junior hockey, too, but he never talked about it after the game.
After Smith-Pelly went to the glass to confront the four fans, who were ejected by security, he confronted the issue.
"We're at a time now where we can't brush it under the rug," the 25-year-old said. "You've got to start calling people out and making sure people see other people's true colors. I guess I’m trying to get the conversation started."
Two Smith-Pelly GIFs. First, you can see him hear someone say something to him, and he looks over at them. pic.twitter.com/LvwUgFl7AL
— Evan Sporer (@ev_sporer) February 18, 2018
Next, he clearly has had enough of whatever is being said, gets up to address the fans. pic.twitter.com/VLu4qHSSMy
— Evan Sporer (@ev_sporer) February 18, 2018
The NHL quickly backed Smith-Pelly.
"The National Hockey League condemns this unacceptable and reprehensible behavior," Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "The league fully supports the actions taken by the United Center and the Blackhawks to eject the offenders and would expect the same response to any similarly unacceptable behavior at any of our arenas.
"While this incident was isolated in nature, no player, coach, official or fan should ever have to endure such abuse at one of our games. The league will take steps to have our clubs remind all stakeholders that they are entitled to enjoy a positive environment – free from unacceptable, inappropriate, disruptive, inconsiderate or unruly behaviors or actions and may not engage in conduct deemed detrimental to that experience."
It was certainly not a statement the league expected to issue during a month that's supposed to be a celebration of harmony.
"In this society you would hope or you think, at least, that kind of stuff would be left behind or not spoken of anymore, but obviously it's tough to hear," said Capitals defenseman Madison Bowey, who is also black. "I've actually been pretty fortunate not to run into any encounters such as that. My dad always warned me that it could happen. Obviously, in this day and age, you don't expect it to.
"It makes you feel pretty sick that people out there are still feeling that way, and I think society has to do a job of changing that. Someone has to figure something out here."
Smith-Pelly said his father also warned him of possible encounters, and this one came during the parents' trip for the Capitals. The player and his dad discussed it briefly.
"We've talked about this before," Smith-Pelly said. "It's happened in hockey before. It's happened to people we personally know. We've had the conversation before. It's just a few ignorant people being idiots."
Like the NHL, the Capitals rushed to Smith-Pelly's defense both personally and societally.
"It's a huge bummer and something that you really don't want to see – and that's putting it in the polite fashion," Washington forward Tom Wilson said. "I went up to him and just said, 'We've got your back.' He's one of our teammates and obviously one of my good buddies. I just told him, 'Hey, dude, just let it go. We've got your back. It's BS.'
"Hopefully, there's some accountability for that guy or whoever did it. Hopefully, he's feeling a little sick to his stomach this morning."
Capitals coach Barry Trotz was still sick about it.
"There's no room for it in sport," he said. "There's no room for it in our country. It just brings light that we’ve still got a long way to go.
"I know for the 22,000 in Chicago for the game, there was a lot of lot of lot of good people, and a few individuals keep bringing the ugly part of society out. That was unfortunate.
"We've still got some work in our country and in sport. There's no room for it. Let's get rid of some of the ignorance."