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After racist taunts, youth hockey team rallies behind teammate

After 13-year-old Divyne Apollon II became the target of racist taunts by opponents, his teammates jumped to his defense. The camaraderie caught the eye of Washington Capitals’ players John Carlson and Devante Smith-Pelly, one of the NHL’s few black members, who invited Apollon and his teammates for a game and VIP tour. Amna Nawaz has the story.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    A rinkside view, and an insider's tour with the Washington Capitals, a dream come true for 13-year-old Divyne Apollon.

    And what is it you love about playing hockey?

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    Everything.

    I was at an ice rink once, and there was like a hockey lesson or something like that, and I wanted to try it out. So I did, and I enjoyed it.

  • Divyne Apollon Sr.:

    First day, he fell. About 25 times, he fell. And I thought he was going to leave. He had this biggest grin on his face. "Oh, I love it, daddy." Ever since then, he's been on the ice.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Divyne plays with a Maryland youth team called the Metro Maple Leafs, and he's spent five years learning to play and love the game. But he's also learned the hard truth about being a black player in a mostly white sport.

    That truth hit hard last month, when an opposing team taunted him with racist jeers.

  • Brad Howington:

    Coach, Metro Maple Leafs: You could tell that the tension was starting to rise around the first period.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Divyne's coach, Brad Howington.

  • Brad Howington:

    And the next thing you know, he's got two kids mauling him, and then he defends himself. I will admit, I saw the anger in his eyes. I saw the children, you know, consoling him, and it just threw me into a tailspin. And I had to go in the — we had to go in the bathroom and calm myself down.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Divyne's teammates leapt to his defense on the ice. And their story caught the country's attention, including Capitals players John Carlson and Devante Smith-Pelly, who immediately responded.

  • Devante Smith-Pelly:

    but We were so happy to see your team stand up to defend and support each other.

  • John Carlson:

    We'd like to invite your entire team to the game on January 14. Enjoy the game, and we look forward to seeing you after.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • John Carlson:

    You feel for Divyne. And he's still a kid. So what I can do is show what a good samaritan is. And by inviting him to a game and having his team that stuck with him as well, I think that, you know, maybe brings him a little bit of joy, and also sheds light on this terrible scenario that he was in.

  • Devante Smith-Pelly:

    It's disgusting. But what I first thought when it happened was, I mean, I'm not really that surprised. Like, it's the kind of thing that still goes on.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Their outreach to Divyne followed fellow NHL star P.K. Subban's dispatch to another black youth player facing racist taunts in Detroit.

  • P.K. Subban:

    As long as you're still breathing in this world, you have got to believe in yourself and let nobody tell you what you can and can't do, especially because of the color of your skin.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Though the ranks of black NHL players have grown over the 60 years since Willie O'Ree broke hockey's race barrier, even superstars like Smith-Pelly, who helped propel his team to last year's Stanley Cup title with breathtaking goals like this…

  • Announcer:

    And a score! And it's Devante Smith-Pelly!

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … continue to face the same racism that Divyne did.

  • Devante Smith-Pelly:

    That type of thinking, that's not how the majority of people are thinking. That's a small group of ignorant people that are doing that kind of thing.

    And your teammates showed that the majority of people, they don't think that way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Divyne's dad says he's been here before.

  • Divyne Apollon Sr.:

    He's my third child. So, my two daughters play tennis as well. So we have dealt with some of that.

    You will be in certain country clubs, they don't want us there. We kind of got the cold shoulder a lot of times. It was dealing with that, so I taught them that as well when they play tennis, because the sports they play aren't — quote, unquote — "traditional black sports."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So he's worked hard, he says, to brace his son for the discrimination he may face on and off the ice.

  • Divyne Apollon Sr.:

    That's not your job to deal with the adults, the refs or anything like that. Even the players, your job is just to dominate. And your job is to play.

    You're playing chess. You have got to think about what you're doing, why they're saying it to you, because, obviously, they want you off the ice. And if you react to it, the ref always sees the reaction, not the action. So you want you want to focus on staying on the ice as long as possible. And that's later on in life.

    You get older. And three or four years from now, he will be driving. Police pull you over for whatever reason, which happens often, you can't just react.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How did you come to a point where you realized you had to ask your dad, should I ignore these things? Should I say something?

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    I don't really ask him about it. But he tells me about it. And says that, when I'm on the ice, ignore it and just keep on playing. But then, when I get off, tell an adult or tell somebody immediately.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How hard is it for you to do that?

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    It's not super difficult, because it's something that I have been taught about and that I can just do.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I think it would disappoint a lot of people and maybe even surprise a lot of people to know that you have heard these things a lot.

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    Yes, most definitely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Did you hear from other folks, that they were surprised?

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    Yes, like, the team family members. I was surprised.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Really?

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Why?

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    Because I didn't realize that people didn't know about things like that happening.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Why did that surprise you?

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    Because they just didn't know, and I did. And I'm younger than they are. So I thought maybe that would be something that they knew.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    By the time Divyne and his teammates visit the Capitals, millions around the world have heard his story. Cameras now follow his every move.

    For the soft-spoken teen, it's a lot to handle.

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    Wow.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But the final horn signals a chance for these kids to be kids.

    Divyne and his team tour the Capitals locker room and are soon joined by a parade of superstars, Divyne's favorite player, Alex Ovechkin, goalie Braden Holtby, veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik, and the men behind it all, Carlson and Smith-Pelly.

    Despite the Caps' loss to the Saint Louis Blues, this room is all smiles.

  • Question:

    How'd you like the game?

    Divyne Apollon Jr. It was good. It would've been better if they won, though.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For Divyne, this is the dream, to one day play in the NHL, a dream he refuses to give up.

    Have you ever for a second thought about stopping?

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    No.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Why not?

  • Divyne Apollon Jr.:

    Because I have put too much time and effort into it. And I love it too much to give up on it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Washington, D.C.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What a great, important story. Thank you.

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