By Bob Duff
Looking back on the moment, Givani Smith finds the entire episode to have been regretful – both the racial slurs and his response to them.
During Game 6 of the 2018 OHL Eastern Conference final, Smith, playing for the Kitchener Rangers against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, was the object of racial slurs coming from Sault Ste. Marie fans. After Kitchener won 4-3 in overtime to force a decisive seventh game, Smith gestured with his middle finger toward the Greyhounds' bench.
He was suspended by the OHL for Game 7, which Kitchener lost.
Smith does not regret standing up for himself in the face of racial abuse. It does bother him that he allowed his temper to take over and, in the process, let his teammates down.
Smith says the racial taunts had gone on the entire season. He finally reached a boiling point and reacted.
“Throughout the whole year and the end of the season, I guess it just all built up in me,” Smith said. “What happened at the end of the game, I wasn’t thinking, and my emotions got the best of me.”
Smith was the subject of online threats and was assigned a police escort and security detail as he watched Game 7 in Sault Ste. Marie from the stands.
“I was getting some rude comments over social media,” Smith said. “The team thought and (Rangers) GM (Mike McKenzie) thought it was better being safe, especially at a place that’s really far from home.”
At the time, several NHLers past and present reached out to offer support to Smith, including Kevin Weekes, Joel Ward, P.K. Subban and Akim Aliu.
Smith, now 22, made his NHL debut last season with the Detroit Red Wings, collecting a pair of goals and three points in 21 games. This season he's scored once among his four points in seven games. He's a physical presence on the ice, and when his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame is unleashed, he makes no friends on the ice among opponents.
His fervent hope is that any response he draws from opposing players and fans through his agitating style is grounded solely in who he is as a hockey player and not related to the color of his skin.
“Fans all like to say a lot of things,” Smith said. “Certain things, I don’t really need to hear that stuff. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened.”
Growing up, Givani and older brother Gemel, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, were cautioned by their father, Gary, that some people would utter racial epithets at them, seeking to trigger a reaction.
“We were all raised to be mentally strong,” Smith said. “My dad told us when we were little, down the road, wherever you go stuff might happen. That’s just life, how it is…I’m sure I’m not the only Black hockey player that’s been through it. It happens, I’m over it now. I’m here in the next chapter.”
When he arrived to begin writing that chapter, the proof of hockey’s changing face was right there in the Red Wings dressing room. Smith’s teammates included defensemen Trevor Daley and Madison Bowey.
“It’s starting to get really diverse now,” Smith said of the NHL. “Especially playing with my age group of kids, there’s kids from a lot of ethnicities coming up…You’re seeing more Black kids, Asian kids – just more diverse people coming into the league.”
When Smith launched his NHL career last season, Wings coach Jeff Blashill had the same talk with him that he shares with every newcomer. At the same time, he recognizes that Smith could face the type of adversity many NHLers won’t.
“I don’t walk in his shoes, so I don’t pretend to walk in his shoes,” Blashill said. “But I think it’s important in life to focus on what you can control.”
Smith is embracing that concept. Haters are always going to hate. He won’t allow them to ever get to him again.