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Racism lingers for NHL players 60 years after O’Ree landmark

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WASHINGTON — 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 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,” Smith-Pelly 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.

”When you see the reaction and the way that people rally around moments like that and try to make a positive out of it, I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Nurse said.

For some players like Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, hockey has been a safe place. The Blue Jackets defenseman said he has so far never been on the receiving end of race-based taunts or messages and said, ”I was just like everybody else playing hockey, which is what everyone wants.”

Most black players haven’t been that fortunate. And while Jones is optimistic that people can change, Smith-Pelly wasn’t sure exactly how that will happen.

”It’s tough,” he said. ”I don’t really know a plan to stop it. That’s how people are.”

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

The two Metropolitan Division rivals meet for the second of four games this season. On Oct. 4, the Penguins took the first meeting in a wild 7-6 overtime game. Right now the teams, who are two of the NHL’s top offenses (WSH, 3.77 goals/gm /  PIT, 3.54 goals/gm – T-4th) have identical 6-4-3 records.

The Penguins are struggling at the moment and enter Wednesday’s game on a four-game losing streak, including the last two at home by a combined 10-1 score (5-0 vs TOR, 5-1 vs NJ). They’ve never lost five in a row under Mike Sullivan.

Hoping some change will do good, Sullivan split up Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel during Tuesday’s practice.

“We’ve got some balance through our lines. We’re hoping by just simplifying our game and taking some of the thinking out of it and just getting after it out there and trying to establish some momentum, that will help us,” Sullivan explained.

Washington heads into the game in the middle of a five-game homestand. They’re coming off a 4-2 win over Edmonton on Monday and a victory on Wednesday would give them consecutive wins for the first time all year.

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Wednesday, November 7th, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Dominik SimonSidney CrosbyBryan Rust
Carl Hagelin – Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
Jake GuentzelRiley Sheahan – Phil Kessel
Garrett WilsonMatt Cullen – Zach Aston-Reese

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Brian DumoulinChad Ruhwedel
Olli MaattaJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovDmitrij Jaskin
Chandler StephensonNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Andre BurakovskyLars EllerBrett Connolly
Jakub VranaTravis BoydDevante Smith-Pelly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Christian DjoosMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Rangers visit Capitals on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

After a hot start to the 2018-19 season that saw them score 18 goals in their first three games, the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals have dropped back-to-back games and been outscored by a 10-2 margin during that stretch. They look to end that brief two-game slide on Wednesday night when they host their divisional rivals, the New York Rangers, at the Capital One Arena in the nation’s capital.

The Rangers, meanwhile, come into the game having won two of their past three games after dropping three in a row to open the season but are still searching for their first regulation win of the season. It will be the first meeting of the season between the two teams after the Capitals took three out of four from the Rangers a year ago.

The Capitals boast one of the league’s deepest lineups and are led by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov has been one of the hottest players in the league to start the year with five goals and four assists in his first five games.

Trying to slow them down will be Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist who has been off to an outstanding start as he enters the game with a .939 save percentage in his first five appearances.

What: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Wednesday, October 17th, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Rangers-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Projected Lineups

New York Rangers

Forwards

Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadJesper Fast
Filip ChytilKevin HayesMats Zuccarello
Jimmy Vesey – Brett Howden – Vladislav Namestnikov
Cody McLeodRyan SpoonerVinni Lettieri

Defense

Brady SkjeiNeal Pionk
Marc StaalBrendan Smith
Fredrik ClaessonKevin Shattenkirk

Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Washington Capitals

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Chandler Stephenson
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Andre BurakovskyLars EllerBrett Connolly
Nathan WalkerNic DowdDevante Smith-Pelly

Defense

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting Goalie: Braden Holtby

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Golden Knights on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Washington Capitals host the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday Night Hockey at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The Golden Knights continue their five-game road trip Wednesday without the services of Paul Stastny. The center suffered a lower-body injury Monday in Buffalo and will miss at least the next three games. He’ll be re-evaluated after that, said head coach Gerard Gallant.

Cody Eakin, who’s yet to play this season, will enter the lineup vs. the Capitals.

While the hype around this game will be that it’s a Stanley Cup Final rematch, the Golden Knights aren’t looking into the past.

“One thing is that we have to stop talking about last year,” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “It’s a new year now. Last year is over. It’s a new team.”

The Capitals, meanwhile, have had an interesting start to their Cup defense, winning their opener 7-0 over the Boston Bruins and then dropping a 7-6 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins the following night. Washington’s franchise record for goals through the first three games of a season is 17, set in 1988-89. The NHL record for most goals through the first three games of a season is 27, set by the Toronto Arenas in the League’s inaugural season of 1917-18; the modern-era record (since 1943-44) is 25, set by the Montreal Canadiens in 1975-76.

As Eakin returns for Vegas, Michal Kempny is expected to make his season debut for the Capitals after suffering a concussion during the preseason. Dmitrij Jaskin is also expected in for Washington after being claimed on waivers from the St. Louis Blues.

What: Vegas Golden Knights at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena, Washington D.C.
When: Wednesday, October 10th, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Golden Knights-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Jonathan Marchessault – William KarlssonReilly Smith
Max PaciorettyErik HaulaTomas Nosek
Ryan Carpenter – Cody Eakin – Oscar Lindberg
William CarrierPierre-Edouard BellemareRyan Reaves

Shea TheodoreDeryk Engelland
Brayden McNabbColin Miller
Jon MerrillNick Holden

Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovBrett Connolly
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Andre BurakovskyLars EllerChandler Stephenson
Dmitrij Jaskin – Nic DowdDevante Smith-Pelly

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Capitals’ Tom Wilson to appeal 20-game suspension

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The National Hockey League Players’ Association announced on Friday that they have filed an appeal on the behalf of Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson, who was suspended 20 games for his hit on Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues.

A date for the appeal hearing has yet to be announced.

Because the suspension is more than six games, Wilson has the right to take his case to a neutral arbitrator if NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman upholds the initial appeal. Per the League: “The standard of review will be whether the League’s finding of violation of the League Playing Rules and the penalty imposed were both supported by substantial evidence.”

Bettman has heard six appeals since 2012, upholding suspensions for Antoine Vermette (10 games, 2017), Dennis Wideman (20 games, 2016) and Shawn Thornton (15 games, 2013) and Patrick Kaleta (10 games, 2013). Daniel Carcillo (10 games to six, 2014) and Raffi Torres (25 games to 21, 2012) both saw reductions in their suspensions after appealing to the Commissioner.

The suspension is Wilson’s fourth in his last 105 games played. In the video explanation, the NHL Department of Player Safety even noted how unprecedented this situation was.

Wilson stands to lose $1,260,162.60 if the 20-game ban is upheld. (His base salary is only $1.1 million after receiving a $5 million signing bonus when he inked his extension over the summer.) At the moment, he won’t be back in the Capitals’ lineup until Nov. 21. But that could change depending on how this appeal goes.

Wilson, who took part in Wednesday’s banner-raising ceremony, will be ineligible to play for the Capitals until the process plays out.

After their 7-0 opening night rout of the Boston Bruins, Wilson’s teammates, as you’d expect, defended the forward.

“Honestly, I think it is garbage, if I’m going to be honest,” Devante Smith-Pelly said via the Washington Post. “We watched a video from the league saying what hits are good and what aren’t. They showed some hits way worse than that, maybe not in force, but in regards to the head that were so-called allowed, and I guess he just had a different rule book. It’s garbage, honestly.”

“I think it’s unfortunate for Tom that the league is making an example out of him. They set the standards. They want to get the dirty stuff out of the game,” Oshie said via ESPN. “At least Tom’s play was on the ice. He was hitting a guy who had the puck milliseconds before. Then you see out there tonight, the sucker punches that [Lars] Eller took. They set the standard. Marchand has a history. We trust that they’ll do what they’re supposed to do and take care of business.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.