In honor of Black History Month, it’s important to reflect on the barrier-breakers who have sacrificed for progression. Sports have always been a main stage for norms to be challenged, racial inclusion being most recollected and honored. Most know the name Jackie Robinson no matter the circle, but few outside of hockey remember the like-importance of Willie O’Ree.
Hockey is different, however. Of the four major North American sports, the NHL is the least racially diverse—it is also the least followed. The league is prominently Caucasian, around 97%. O’Ree broke barriers as the first Black player to take the ice for an NHL game. On Jan. 18, 1958, he had replaced an injured player on the Boston Bruins’ roster prior to their game against the Montreal Canadians. Though his career only lasted 45 games, his debut, and involvement in the NHL since, will be forever remembered.
The league continues to take strides in regard to diversity on the ice, bench, and in front offices. O’Ree opened the door for Black players to have the opportunity to compete, and many have had successful careers in the NHL.
Now in their 47th season as a franchise, the Washington Capitals have suited 11 Black players, many of whom have made significant contributions to their success. Among them, Joel Ward and Devonte Smith-Pelly have given the franchise and fans two iconic Capitals’ postseason goals.
Joel Ward, Apr. 25, 2012
The Capitals had forced the defending Stanley Cup champions, Bruins, to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. It was an off-year by Washington’s standards. After three straight Southeast division crowns and 100-plus point seasons, the Capitals only earned 92 points and the seventh seed in the playoffs. It would turn out to be Bruce Boudreau’s last season at the helm, but it wasn’t short of dramatics.
The game went into overtime just to deepen what was already a tense and tight match. Less than three minutes into the extra period, the Boston faithful were already echoing anxious groans from the boards to the rafters. The puck curled around the boards in Washington’s defensive end before being cleared to Bruins’ left-wing Benoit Pouliot. He attempted to shoot the puck back in the zone, but the Capitals’ Mike Knuble cluttered the area and blocked the try. He quickly countered with a two-on-one with teammate Ward, and the groans turned to gasps.
Ward had a fantastic 11-year NHL career, skating for Minnesota, Nashville, Washington, and San Jose. The Canadian retired after the 2017-18 season, finishing his career with 304 points and 133 goals. His clincher against Boston may have been his finest tally, but it came with an ugly truth: racism still existed. After the game, Ward was the target of racial abuse on social media, most slurs coming from Boston supporters (from ‘Racist tweet storm about Joel Ward prompted by Bruins’ loss to Capitals,’ Washington Post, 04/26/2012). He was the bigger man in the moment and the aftermath, however. He and his teammates were the winners.
As the crowd held their communal breath, Knuble charged the net with the puck and tried to backhand a shot past Tim Thomas’ stick side. The rebound slid in front of the net, and Ward buried the game-winner with a backhand of his own.
Ward was mobbed by the rest of the Capitals, and the squad celebrated together with pure joy. Even after a tough season, Ward gave the franchise and fan base hope. That hope, paired with distress, lasted until 2018.
Devante Smith-Pelly, Jun. 7, 2018
When Las Vegas was awarded an NHL franchise, fans outside Sin City didn’t know what to expect. Well, it worked, and the locals proved ice hockey in the desert wasn’t far-fetched. When the Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights met in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, history was going to be made no matter who won. The pre-game production, a form in which only Vegas could perfect, cast the Capitals as the villain. Yet, Washington had its own fantasy to write.
Game 5 was once again a tense matchup. The Knights had taken a lead into the third, and halfway through the period, they were sustaining. The puck glided into the Knights’ defensive end, and eventually left wing Erik Haula tried to lift it out of the zone. The Capitals’ Brooks Orpik flicked the puck down, and as it bounced just inches from passing the blue line, he wristed it toward the goal. Devante Smith-Pelly did what any good forward does—he went toward the front of the net.
Smith-Pelly joined Washington during the 2017-18 season. He had bounced around the NHL and AHL, but he will forever stay in Capitals’ lure. His Game 5 equalizer wasn’t his only big moment during Washington’s magical run to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship, but it may be the most memorable. However, like Ward, Smith-Pelly was also the victim of racial taunting—and even worse, it was also in 2018. Though that February game in Chicago will always stick with him, his triumph to follow partially eradicated the ignorance.
Orpik’s toss knuckled toward Marc-Andre Fleury. Smith-Pelly had snuck behind defensemen Luca Sbisa and Colin Miller as the puck split the two and landed at his feet. In an act of incredible athleticism, Smith-Pelly cradled the puck with his skate, kicked it across Fleury, and while diving, curled his shot past the star goaltender’s extended leg.
The forward gave energy and momentum back to the Capitals, and Lars Eller scored the Stanley Cup winner less than three minutes later. Smith-Pelly will always be honored in a city known best for remembering heroes.
These monumental goals created raucous celebrations. The first left a rival city in emotional shambles while the team joyously embraced each other with the hope their below-standard season had some magic. The second sent the city streets of our nation’s capital into a frenzy, reminding us that even though our government is divided, it only takes a moment to get along.
Celebration is the key element of both and is not only part of the cause but something worth continuing. Their recognition doesn’t need to stop at the end of the month but can be forever cherished in D.C. archives and future stories shared. Yes, Ward and Smith-Pelly are both Black, but they are also hockey players.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
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