2018 NHL Playoffs, Commentary, Devante Smith-Pelly, Washington Capitals -

Host cities go all out for Stanley Cup Final, but hockey still doesn’t feel like it’s for everyone There is a lot of work to be done on the inclusivity front

2018 NHL Playoffs, Commentary, Devante Smith-Pelly, Washington Capitals -

Host cities go all out for Stanley Cup Final, but hockey still doesn’t feel like it’s for everyone There is a lot of work to be done on the inclusivity front

WASHINGTON — Four months ago, Devante Smith-Pelly was picking up his hockey stick to confront racist fans from a Chicago penalty box. Saturday night, the Washington Capitals winger was using it to score his first career goal in the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights. For a league that at the time was celebrating “Hockey Is For Everyone” month, it was a heck of a moment.

With two nontraditional hockey towns facing off for the National Hockey League’s biggest prize, much of North America and Europe has been exposed to a couple of new fan cultures that might otherwise look foreign. Las Vegas, in its first season in the league, has brought an element of showmanship to its home games that some call hokey and over the top. For Washington, a city where it’s been a generation since a professional sports team had any real success, it’s still finding its championship footing from a fan standpoint.

More largely, there’s a question of how the NHL can capitalize on this to help grow the popularity of the league. By and large, the in-game experience is the same mélange of alternative rock music, a few quirky local traditions (see: Detroit and Nashville, Tennessee) and three-part chants designed to fire up the home team. Over the years, various franchises here and there have tried to mix it up, but primarily, a hockey game is a hockey game is a hockey game.

So the final series of the 2017-18 season provides us with an opportunity, and perhaps a blueprint, for how the NHL can add more individual civic personality to its league, for better or worse. If hockey really is going to be for everyone, it’s going to take more than a marketing campaign and a couple of videos from Snoop Dogg.

Before Game 2, outside of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, fans were lining up in the desert heat to pack the bars, restaurants and outdoor plaza just off The Strip, well-known around the world for its bright lights. Dotted around the arena were various live bands knocking out their favorite cover songs. Throughout the afternoon, a marching band was going through various establishments in Vegas Golden Knights (VGK) gear, to drum up interest. If you’ve never seen a little person in a hockey helmet or a guy on stilts with a goalie mask, then this was the day for you.

Inside the arena are hundreds of jerseys with phrases such as “Vegas Born,” “Blackjack” and “Vegas Strong” (a reference to the mass shooting that took 58 lives last October and the city’s recovery in recent months, which the hockey team has largely been credited with helping). There are what seems like a world record of gold sequined jackets in one place and dudes wearing visors as far as the eye can see.

On the ice, aside from their now famous Game Of Thrones routine, Vegas native Imagine Dragons busted out a surprise set that really got people moving, from what I understand. Some guy was dancing in the aisles ripping off his T-shirt, only to reveal more T-shirts underneath, a true feat of magic considering how the man was actually built.

Point being, it was all very Vegas.

In Washington, before the game, Shaggy and Sting performed outside of the National Portrait Gallery, a Smithsonian museum across the street from Capital One Arena, where the Caps play. Before the game, kids were playing bucket drums on F Street and one busker had the crowd going with an impressive trombone routine.

Before the puck dropped inside the building, longtime Washington NFL franchise head coach Joe Gibbs started things off with a “Let’s Go Caps!” chant. Considering it was the first Stanley Cup Final game in 20 years in D.C., the pregame video montage featuring stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie (whose daughter is adorable, by the way) was emotional and featured excellent shots of the Lincoln Memorial and Chinatown, the neighborhood where the arena is.

After that, Pat Sajak — yes, the Wheel Of Fortune host — introduced the two teams, but not before he rattled off what was seemingly a couple of minutes of stand-up first. It was as awkward as it sounds, and the fact that the video board looked like the actual game show clues didn’t help.

If we’re comparing the two, Vegas wins.

Why does this matter? Because on the surface, the NHL and hockey overall still feel exceedingly white in nature. It’s how situations like Smith-Pelly getting accosted with chants of “basketball” at Chicago’s United Center are not even huge blips on the sports radar and how the very presence of black fans can create awkward tension in some arenas. While ostensibly the NHL is doing everything it can to make the experience more relatable and grow the game itself, there is still a lot of work to be done on the inclusivity front.

At Game 2, Carnell Johnson sang the national anthem. Setting aside the fact that only black people seem to sing national anthems these days (thanks, NFL!) an interesting thing happened to me while I was there. As Johnson stepped to the mic, an incredulous voice decided to pipe up. “Seriously?!” a random man said over my shoulder. “Excuse me?” I replied. “It’s just … it’s the national anthem. Whatever, man,” he said. Mind you, this person was a fan, deciding that his feelings about that song were worth yelling at me about.

In the Eastern Conference finals, previously, I was forced to listen to two longtime hockey media members drone on about how Bruno Mars wasn’t “hockey music” and how, for one of them, death metal is what really represents his experience with the game. Was he being marginally facetious? Sure. But if that’s the kind of attitude felt by the very people tasked with documenting and sharing the game, we’re not exactly talking about a welcoming experience, even for something as relatively benign as in-game music.

For what it’s worth, Washington, D.C., once nicknamed “Chocolate City” because of its then-majority-black population, isn’t exactly well-represented during the typical game-day experience. Spotting a black person at the arena who isn’t working is an exercise in patience. On Saturday, I talked to one guy who was there with his family, three relatively grown children who were at their first or second hockey game. “It was awesome. It was great. The vibe of the crowd, the energy. I don’t go to a lot of hockey games,” William Powell said. “I mean when Smith-Pelly, when he did what he did? I’m like, yo, represent the brothas, for real.”

Then, on the way out, crowd members from the 400 sections did their fair share of berating the arena workers, whom some people Rocking The Red deemed not to be doing their jobs well enough to let them out of the arena in a timely fashion. Earlier in the night, a friend told me that a stranger touched her face and kissed her in the middle of the concourse. An employee came and asked if she was OK, but that’s all that came of it. For everyone, this night was not.

The stereotype of boozed-up, overgrown frat bros at skates might be undeserved, but it certainly wasn’t inaccurate in D.C. this weekend. For many fans, this was their first taste of anything so special, and they celebrated the occasion by buying extremely expensive tickets, only to puke out their insides on the side of the arena during intermissions. Meanwhile, when the team let fans in for free to watch the game on the big screen while the Caps were on the road, you got a much more family-friendly atmosphere that shockingly also happened to be more diverse too.

T-Mobile Arena was a far less testosterone-charged environment, by a wide margin. While the crowd was loud, the game also happened on a weekday at 5 p.m., so the building wasn’t full of people who’d basically been drinking all day. It was similarly difficult to find black folks to talk to, off the clock, but not impossible. One guy, when asked why he didn’t think more black folks showed up to the Final, cited a simple reason: cost.

“This is just kind of expensive for your first hockey game,” said Steve Cherry, 35, who works for a medical marijuana dispensary. “I’m crazy, I’m a die-hard sports fan, so I don’t care. But like, yeah, during the regular season, we put down $1,000 for a ticket, so it’s no joke.”

Not everyone agrees. Seeing non-white people at all is an indication of a non-problem in some minds. During the second period at T-Mobile Arena, one black woman decided to see what things were all about because her family persuaded her to go. “This is my first game. I am anti-hockey, but my family loves hockey, so I came out to support today,” said Yvonne Fitterer, a Las Vegas resident. “Everyone’s very friendly. It’s very diverse. I’m glad to see African-American hockey players these days. That stokes me out, so I’m loving it.”

Feeling great about the experience, cruising the venue during the second period, overall the tone and vibe of Vegas during the skate were great. People were kind, helpful and clearly grateful that they had such an opportunity to be a part of something so special. Then I heard a dog. A loud one. Barking at me. Sure enough, I turned around and it was exactly what I thought it was: a police dog. Except, it wasn’t in the arena, it was on a television, one that mirrored the big screen. And when the barking stopped, the familiar chant of “Go, Knights, Go!” repeated over and over. And those police dogs, first shown in full-throated glory, were now bookending a Knights logo on the screen. It was a bizarrely jarring visual for a place that, up until that point, had felt like such a kind, fun place.

As it turns out, this was not just a one-off, not just some random viral video that a fan altered to make a pep chant — this is what the Las Vegas Police Department does. This was an official video created for and with an actual police department. “We got your back! Go, Knights, go!” That’s the deafening chant coming from screaming officers, in unison. K9s, SWAT vehicles and guys in tactical gear don’t exactly scream “this is for you.”

Of course, the bond between that city and its police force after the mass shooting is an understandable one. But it’s another case of how, even if unintentionally, an outward-facing message can affect more constituencies than you might believe. I’ve been a hockey fan for nearly 30 years. I don’t need gimmicks to draw me to the rink, but I understand why plenty of people might be turned off by the sight of law enforcement barking cheers in their faces.

Overall, both cities have handled their moment in the spotlight well. If the NHL is going to make its way back into the circle of relevance among the major U.S. sports, showcases like the Stanley Cup Final are important. So far, the two hosts have tried their best to personalize the experience and focus on the culture of their locations, not just the game, to do so. It’s a smart strategy that more teams could and should embrace.

NBC Sports has featured Anson Carter, a black man and former Washington Capital, in its coverage in this year’s Final and broke ground with A.J. Mleczko becoming the first woman to work as an in-booth analyst during an NHL playoff game. All around the game, progress is being made.

It just doesn’t always feel that way if you’re actually in the building.

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