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Monday, July 15, 2024

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The significance of a Stanley Cup champion named Devante

You might call it the Devante swing.

At the start of the third period, the nearly 15,000 people inside Capital One Arena had resigned themselves to the fact that this might not be the night that the Washington Capitals get it done. The Vegas Golden Knights had scored twice to end the second and take a 3-2 lead.

Then, he struck.

After initiating the play on the forecheck, and Brooks Orpik kept the puck in the zone, Devante-Smith Pelly controlled it off his skate, then beat Marc-André Fleury glove side to equalize the skate at three goals each, and suddenly there was life. Fleury lay on the ice for a long time after that goal, appearing completely defeated. “The Great Dane” Lars Eller scored the go-ahead goal and just like that, it was party time.

The name Devante will be inscribed on the Stanley Cup.

It’s been quite the journey for the black man from Scarborough, Ontario, whom the kids call DSP. His career began with the Anaheim Ducks. Three teams and five seasons later, he’s hoisting the Stanley Cup and celebrating with his family on the ice.

I happened to be standing next to longtime Capital and team broadcaster Craig Laughlin, and when that puck hit the net, the young kid who cried all the way home after my first hockey game was suddenly superemotional about seeing a black man officially make his mark on the franchise for which I’ve rooted for 30 years. They couldn’t have done it without him. He scored the game-winner in Game 3 at home, and had three total tallies in the Stanley Cup Final. Overall, he had seven goals in 24 playoff games and seven goals in 75 regular-season games.

But culturally, the significance is undeniable to Washington, D.C., specifically. At one point in the series the home crowd was chanting his name, a sight I thought I’d never see in my life. Six years ago, after I wrote about how being a black hockey fan can be a lonely experience, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis dragged me into his office to lecture me about all the work he’d done for black kids in places like Fort Dupont, which has D.C.’s only public hockey rink. I contended at the time that youth pucks aside, it might behoove the franchise, in a place once called Chocolate City, to actually acknowledge its long-storied tradition with black players inside of the actual building.

Now, at least one brother will get that honor.

For every black kid in this area who plays the game or is even thinking about playing it, there’s no doubt that seeing a man who looks like that with a name like that – and his middle name is Malik – is an inspiration to them at home. Will all sorts of rinks and sport courts start popping up around the city and metropolitan area, motivating black kids to take to the ice? Who knows? The barriers to entry are still high. But maybe winning a title will motivate Leonsis to go all-in on the effort, a la Tampa Bay.

At the watch party Thursday, there were more black folks “at” a hockey game than I’d ever seen in my life. By the time the final horn sounded, the sea of faces inside and outside the arena included more people of color than I can ever recall surrounding hockey in this area. It was overwhelming in the best way possible.

Earlier in the week, this being Washington, DSP was asked about what he would do if the Capitals won and President Donald Trump invited the team to visit the White House. Smith-Pelly brought the noise.

“The things that he spews are straight-up racist and sexist,” he told a Canadian media outlet before Game 5. “Some of the things he’s said are pretty gross. I’m not too into politics, so I don’t know all his other views, but his rhetoric I definitely don’t agree with. It hasn’t come up here, but I think I already have my mind made up.”

Me too. On Tuesday at the parade, many black folks, just like me, will get to cheer on their new favorite Capital of all time.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes — in that order.

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