Detroit – Givani Smith said he knows he is not the first black hockey player who has dealt with racial epithets.
Taunting is part of the game and racism is part of society.
But when it all got to be just a bit too much after a season of it, last month, in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, Smith, one of the Red Wings' prime prospects, responded to an opponent with an obscene gesture.
Having experienced similar things before, and having been prepared for such situations by family, friends and mentors, Smith said he is prepared for such incidents.
But he regrets missing a game for his reaction.
He certainly is not the first player to feel targeted by racism, and he said he has gotten a lot of support.
“You know what? It’s hockey talk,” said Smith, a power forward. “Everyone -- fans say a lot of things.
“But certain things I just like -- it’s just like no one on the team really needs to hear that stuff.
“It doesn’t happen often, but it happened.
“For me. it’s on the ice,” he said, of the competitive context of fast, high-action sport. “Stuff away from hockey, I wouldn’t pay attention to it too much.”
A big unfortunate aspect of the situation, Smith said, was missing a seventh game of a playoff round, after a difficult season.
“It was a really good playoff run,” he said of playing for Kitchener against Sault Ste. Marie in the conference finals in May, a few months after returning from an injury that cost him two important months in his development at the start of the season.
“To work so hard to go to the conference finals and the way I got suspended wasn’t ideal.”
After the scoring the winning goal in overtime, to win Game 6, 4-3, the OHL suspended Smith for the gesture directed toward the Sault Ste. Marie bench, amid the celebration.
It was not the first time in his trying 2017-18 season, Smith said, that he had heard similar racial taunts from opponents.
Smith discussed the incident and his predicament during the second day of the Red Wings' development camp, one day after the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL.
“Yeah, just throughout the whole year and at the end of the season,” Smith said, of the racial abuse directed at him. “I guess it just built up in me.
“And then, after the game, I wasn’t thinking. And I let the emotions get the best of me, and I fell for it.”
By fell for it, Smith meant responding.
“You know, what it happened,” Smith said.
“I was raised to be pretty mentally tough. It doesn’t really faze me too much.
“I’ve dealt with it, pretty much,” said the 20-year-old native of Toronto.
“Me and my brothers, we were all raised to be mentally strong. My dad told us, moving forward, a little, down the road, wherever you go, stuff may happen. It’s just, like, life. that’s how it is.
“You know, I was prepared for it, me and my family,” Smith said. “I think I handled it pretty well.
“Two of my brothers played hockey. You know, they’re my mentors. It’s really nice having them. They have a clear understanding of everything I’m going through, that’s been in the last year.”
After a the circulation of a video of the incident, social media lit up with derogatory remarks directed at Smith. He required a police escort in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
“I guess it was more for my safety,” Smith said.
“I was getting similar comments over social media, and it just became a thought of better being safe than anything else. Especially so far from home where we really didn’t know as many people.”
Smith said he got support from current and former NHL players, including two men who are black, the former NHL goaltender and current broadcaster Kevin Weekes, and Joel Ward of the Sharks.
“Oh, yeah. I got a lot. A lot of them reached out to me and it made me feel really good,” Smith said.
“All of the guys, because they’re all from the Toronto area. We’re all Toronto guys.
“They offered me a lot of advice. They said, well, they’ll come and talk, because I’m sure they all went through it.
“I’m sure I’m not the only black hockey player that’s been through it,” Smith said.
“It happens, and I’m over it now. I’m here. It’s like the next chapter. I’m in camp.”
Smith is 6-2, 206 pound, and talks about using physical play “to create space for me and my teammates” in the same way as Gordie Howe explained why he took the rough-and-tough route.
“He’s going to be guy who is relied on to bring a physical presence, to open up space for him and his linemates,” said Ben Simon, head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, who is among the coaches at the Wings' development camp.
“We’re expecting him to contribute offensively, as well. There’s high expectations from himself, and from the organization there is a lot to expect, as well.”
Selected 44th overall in the second round in 2016, Smith found himself on a line with Michael Rasmussen, the Wings’ top pick in 2017, and Filip Zadina, their top pick in 2018, during practice Wednesday.
“Oh, it was phenomenal,” said Smith, who sets up as power forward who can forecheck, retrieve pucks along the boards, win battles, turn the puck over to his more skilled linemates and head to the net.
“I know my role. I’m a power forward and I get to play dirty and go to those dirty areas,” he said.
“There’s only so many jobs in the NHL. So, being myself and what I do, teams are looking for guys like me, especially Detroit. I think I’m in a good position.”
Smith said he is working on his foot speed and looking forward to adjusting to the rigors and benefits of his first season in professional hockey, probably beginning in Grand Rapids this season.
“You can always work on those first three steps coming out of that zone,” he said of the quick transition from defense to offense.
“Now, I’m 20 years old and I think I’ve been developing a lot. I’m almost there, but there’s always room for improvement.”