WASHINGTON – Divyne Apollon II entered the Capitals locker room and a smile instantly creased his face.
A hockey dressing room is no strange place to Divyne, a 13-year-old who plays travel hockey for the Metro Maple Leafs. He’s played the sport since he was eight. But this was different for the eighth grader from Maryland.
Two weeks after one of the lowest moments of his life, when an opposing team from the Philadelphia area made repeated racial taunts at Divyne, the only African-American player on the Maple Leafs, during a Jan. 3 game, he was suddenly among his heroes.
Washington defenseman John Carlson read about what Divyne endured and he and teammate Devante Smith-Pelly invited the Maple Leafs to Monday’s game against the St. Louis Blues at Capital One Arena.
It was a small gesture to a group of young teens forced to deal with a world that can be cruel, unwelcoming. The Maple Leafs were so outraged by the derisive words hurled at Divyne during that game that they fought back physically. It led to his suspension from the tournament before the adults figured out what had sparked the fight.
“By doing what you did, you were standing up for each other, standing up for yourselves. That’s what we need to move forward,” Carlson told the Maple Leafs in the locker room after the game. “That’s important. That’s a good message to send everyone. And you guys are just kids, but you made things right.”
For Smith-Pelly, the incident comes as no surprise. Just last February during a Capitals game in Chicago a fan yelled at him to go back to playing basketball. There is no escape from racism even at the NHL level. It is something African American and African Canadian players learn to deal with playing hockey growing up.
“I don’t want to say move on from it,” Carlson said. “But just keep being yourselves because I know me and [Smith-Pelly] and everyone around the city was not very happy to hear what happened, felt terrible about it. We just wanted to show our appreciation to you guys and thank you.”
Divyne and his teammates got to sit in section 225 to watch the Capitals’ 4-1 loss to St. Louis and were on the glass for an up close view of warm-ups before the game. Afterward they were ushered into the locker room and chatted with Carlson and Smith-Pelly, but also Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby, among others.
The Maple Leafs stared in wonder at the familiar nameplates above the lockers most fans never get to see. There was Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie’s stalls. Brooks Orpik stopped by to say hello and so did Jakub Vrana and Madison Bowey, another African Canadian who grew up in Winnipeg and dealt with the same taunts.
The kids who tried to hurt Divyne with racist insults, who tried to make it clear that he didn’t belong on the ice, didn’t have the effect they intended. They galvanized a team and a community instead.
“Well I guess they’re probably crying at home right now because they didn’t get to meet Ovechkin,” Divyne said.
Ovechkin handed Divyne one of his personal sticks. So did Smith-Pelly and Carlson. Braden Holtby gave him a goalie stick, but Divyne gave that one to Maple Leafs goalie Alex Auchincloss. He’s a goalie, too, and Holtby is his favorite player. Auchincloss wouldn’t let anyone touch that keepsake. The rest of the team got to take pictures with players, including selfies, and had them sign autographs.
“At first it was really bad, but then it turned into some big movement, so people realize that it’s not OK to make fun of people and to treat everybody the way you wanted to be treated,” Maple Leafs forward Sam Abramson, 13, said. “Because he’s my teammate and you’ve got to stand up for your teammates.”
Divyne admitted the media coverage was becoming overwhelming. But the support he and his family have received from the Maple Leafs and the travel hockey community in Odenton, Md., where the team is based at Piney Orchard Ice Arena, has been overwhelming, too.
One of the team moms, Tammi Lynch, created a logo in the aftermath of the incident: The word ‘racism” in a circle with a hockey stick serving as the slash mark through it. Divyne Apollon I, Divyne’s father, wore a t-shirt with the logo in the Caps locker room after the game. The players wore a version of the logo taped to their equipment in the aftermath of the Jan. 3 game.
“You’d think that you wouldn’t have to deal with that these days, but it’s obviously still present,” Carlson said. “Hopefully this great story about the team standing up for each other - and how Divyne stood up for himself - is a good step forward and shows some people the real way to act and how to love each other.”
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