Mike Marson wasn’t able to make it to D.C. Tuesday to witness the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory parade with other Caps alumni members – he was grounded by the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis.
But Marson was hooting and rooting from afar, basking in the glow of a championship won by the team that made him the National Hockey League’s second black player when it drafted him in its inaugural season in 1974.
“They had some tremendous play from (Alex) Ovechkin, Mr. Devante Smith-Pelly, (Braden) Holtby,” Marson told me. “So many guys played well.”
He had special praise for Smith-Pelly, a fellow black player from Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, who came up big in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 7 goals and 1 assist in 23 post-season games.
“He was heroic. He scored the most-important goals, I believe,” Marson said. “I take my hat off to Devo. A lot of hard work there, a little bit of rough water occasionally, I think, but good for him. He came out the superstar and was all that he could be.”
Smith-Pelly scored three goals in the final three goals in the final three games against the Vegas Golden Knights, none bigger than the smooth (real smooth, reeaall smooth) Game 5 third-period tally he slid past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury that tied the game at 3.
Capitals center Lars Eller scored the game-winning goal that secured a 4-3 win and the Cup for the Capitals. But without Smith-Pelly’s acrobatic goal, there’s no go-ahead goal by Eller.
Actor Denzel Washington may be The Equalizer in movie theaters this summer, but Smith-Pelly nailed the role on ice in Las Vegas last Thursday night, much to Marson’s delight.
Marson was so thrilled by the right wing’s Game 5 goal that he threw a cushion at his television – an odd family tradition.
“When my dad, myself and my Uncle Romeo used to watch hockey, when something went one way or the other, we would throw out cushions at the TV and laugh, of course,” he said.
After the ceremonial cushion toss, Marson grabbed the phone and called Bill Riley, who became the NHL’s third black player when he joined Marson on the Capitals in 1974-75, to compare notes on what they just witnessed.
Riley, who played right wing, summed up Smith-Pelly’s Game equalizer to me in four emailed words: “Gives me goosebumps. Wicked.”
Marson and Riley take pride in Smith-Pelly’s Stanley Cup success because, like them, he has overcome.
He’s overcome the racist ignorance of “fans” who taunted him with chants of “basketball” as he sat in the penalty box in Chicago in February during a game against the Blackhawks.
Marson endured racist taunts and death threats during his four seasons with the Capitals, a turbulent time chronicled in Canadian filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason’s seminal black hockey history documentary, “Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future.”
Still, Marson managed to score 24 goals and 24 assists in 196 NHL regular season games from 1974-75 to his final three games with the Los Angeles Kings in 1979-80.
Riley still recalls when “fans” in Detroit dismissively referred to him and Marson as “round ball players.” The racist indignities on and off the ice didn’t deter Riley from scoring 31 goals and 30 assists in 139 games with Washington and the Winnipeg Jets from 1974-75 to 1979-80.
Both retired Caps are overjoyed that Smith-Pelly kept on keeping on after being cast aside and doubted by the Anaheim Ducks, the team that drafted him in the second round of the 2010, the Montreal Canadiens, and New Jersey Devils.
A free agent, he signed with the Capitals before the start of the 2017-18 season for the league minimum $650,000. He dutifully played on the Capitals fourth line, a checking line that didn’t get big minutes during the regular season.
“I was in touch with Devante,” Marson said. “Devo’s a Scarborough guy and this and that. He endured as a player, kept getting better every game, and was playing with confidence.”
— SI Extra Mustard (@SI_ExtraMustard) June 12, 2018
Smith-Pelly made the most of his opportunities, notching 7 goals and 9 assists in 75 regular season games. Then came the Playoffs, The Goal, The Cup and The Parade.
“Devo was able to make it happen,” Marson said.
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