GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As part of Black History Month, Detroit Red Wings prospect Givani Smith had the opportunity to participate in a special dinner.
The 20-year-old spoke to about 50 parents and kids, most of them black, at a dinner put on by the Griffins Youth Foundation. Smith talked about his experiences growing up in Canada, and the kids and their parents had the opportunity to ask the current Grand Rapids Griffin questions.
“It was a really good experience,” Smith told Wings Nation after the Griffins’ 3-1 loss to the Chicago Wolves on Sunday. “It was the first time I’ve done something like that, it was a little nerve-racking, but at the same time, it was nice to talk to those kids.”
Smith, who was selected 46th overall in the second round of the 2016 NHL draft, said the acceptance of blacks into hockey has gotten better, in part thanks to Willie O’Ree, who in 1958, became the first black player in the NHL and was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame in 2018.
Despite the progress made, there still is a long way to go.
Smith has dealt with racist taunts as recently as last year, before and after his final junior game with the Kitchener Rangers. According to The Record in Kitchener, Ontario, he received death threats and physical threats on social media, after he was seen making an “inappropriate gesture” toward the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds bench.
The OHL suspended Smith two games for the incident, and he later admitted his emotions got the best of him.
There also was an incident during the regular season of his final junior season where a fan tried to get to Smith in the team’s dressing room. Kitchener general manager Mike McKenzie said the fan yelled a racial slur at Smith, who had received a game misconduct and was heading to the dressing room early.
And as seen in other media reports, kids in youth leagues still are experiencing racism 61 years after O’Ree’s debut.
Early this week P.K. had a message for a young kid who was being bullied.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) January 10, 2019
Smith said it was disturbing to see kids still dealing with racially charged taunts.
“I was heartbroken,” he said when he heard about the story. “You never want to see any of that stuff, any kid getting bullied like that. It was sad. When I heard about the whole story. I was happy that (Subban) stepped up and he was able to do something — make the kid feel special.”
Smith’s message to kids:
“I just told them (what) I’ve always been told my entire life, ‘just water under the bridge,’ keep (moving) forward. It’s 2019, that stuff shouldn’t be acceptable. It’s OK to speak up,” he said.