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Color of Hockey

Color of Hockey: Smith-Pelly looks ahead following coronavirus

2018 Cup hero with Capitals eyes return to NHL following firsthand look at pandemic in KHL

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past eight years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles former Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who played this season in the Kontinental Hockey League.

 

Devante Smith-Pelly had an uncomfortable preview of the impact of the coronavirus on the hockey world.

The former Washington Capitals forward, one of the heroes in their run to the Stanley Cup in 2018, was playing for Kunlun Red Star, a Beijing-based team in the Kontinental Hockey League, as the virus was spreading in China during January.

Video: WSH@VGK, Gm5: Smith-Pelly ties it while falling down

Kunlun was preparing for a road trip to Russia and Finland in mid-January with the notion that returning to Beijing might be a problem.

"Nobody obviously knew what was going on with the virus, so it was kind of, like, 'We'll pack a little bit more if we don't go back,'" Smith-Pelly said. "Probably the day after we left or two days after we left, they literally locked down everything. At that point, we figured it was super, super serious."

The road trip became a 35-day odyssey that contributed to Kunlun spending 58 of the last 67 days of the season outside of Beijing.

"Our guys, Devante included, kind of kept trucking and trying to do what they were trying to accomplish," said Kunlun general manager Scott MacPherson, a former scout for the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning and a former University of Massachusetts-Amherst coach. "They didn't make any excuses."

Kunlun's final two home games of the season were relocated to neutral sites due to the virus.

"We played one in Novosibirsk, which is like Siberia," Smith-Pelly said. "We were also hanging out in a city named Yekaterinburg. We were there for about five days."

Kunlun completed its regular-season schedule but didn't qualify for the Gagarin Cup playoffs, which were cancelled in March after two teams backed out because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Smith-Pelly and Kunlun played their last game on Feb. 24; he said players were anxious to get to their offseason homes after the 2-1 loss to Dinamo Riga.

"The original plan was to go back to Beijing and get all your stuff and go," Smith-Pelly said. "But at that point, that wasn't possible, so we just left. We were in Novosibirsk at that point. Literally the next day, everyone got out just to make sure there were no holdups in getting back to North America. Going into airports and stuff like that at that time was kind of scary, but at that point, we were good to go home."

Smith-Pelly arrived in Toronto about four weeks ago, just in time to shelter in place there. He's living in his parents' house, reflecting on his season abroad and wondering what his hockey future holds after playing on a one-year deal with Kunlun.

"As of right now, nothing is moving in any league," he said. "Just like everyone else, I'm just kind of playing it day by day, seeing what happens with this virus, seeing what happens with leagues starting back up, then go from there."

Smith-Pelly, who didn't receive a contract offer by the Capitals after the 2019 season, finished the 2019-20 KHL season with 11 points (eight goals, three assists) in 36 games. He joined Kunlun in November, weeks after the KHL's September start. He was working out on his own after he was released from a personal tryout offer from the Calgary Flames in September.

"He played terrific," MacPherson said. "When he showed up, he wasn't in game shape. The Russian league starts in July, training. It's kind of the old school Soviet mentality in training -- double sessions every day. By the time the season starts in September their conditioning is absolutely at the highest level. For Devante to come in in November, it was really a baptism by fire. He kind of just kept his head down and kept working and working. He seamlessly fit in with our team."

Smith-Pelly attributed the slow start in part to adapting to living a different country and adjusting to playing on a larger ice surface.

"I thought there would be a lot of room and you're going to get 2-on-1s and breakaways all day just because there's so much room, when in reality it's not like that at all," he said. "I think probably 10-15 games [into the season] is when I started feeling a lot better. Then into January and February to the end of the year, I felt great, and was all up to speed and adjusted to the travel and time changes. The first half was a little tough but the home stretch, toward the end, I felt a lot better."

Now he's home. Like every other every other professional hockey player, Smith-Pelly's days in the age of the coronavirus centers on trying to figure out how to work out with little to no exercise equipment and what to binge watch.

"I'm going outside to get workouts in and stuff," he said. "Then I come back in, Netflix, play a little video games, watch TV, then wake up and do it again the next day."

Unlike many of his fellow homebound pro players, he's not a huge fan of Netflix's "Tiger King."

"I think I watched two episodes. It's all right. The hype is a little crazy," he said. "Right now, my go-to is 'Money Heist.'"

Smith-Pelly also spends time keeping in touch with many of his former Washington teammates. He said he spoke with Alex Ovechkin this past week.

"It's a crazy time right now, so everyone's a little bit worried or going maybe a little nuts in their house," he said. "But all the guys are good and we keep in touch."

Capitals fans have been touching base with Smith-Pelly. He noticed that he was suddenly receiving a lot of social media messages around late March when NBC Sports Washington began rebroadcasting the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs games that helped make him a cult hero.

"The last couple of week I hadn't been thinking about it, but they're playing the playoffs over again and a lot of people are messaging me saying 'Thank you' and talking about the way the team played and how I played," he said. "It's something I'll never forget. Me and D.C. forever."

Smith-Pelly said his goal is to play in the NHL again. But he added that he enjoyed playing for a Kunlun team led by former Atlanta Thrashers coach Curt Fraser and stocked with players like Brandon Yip, Spencer Foo and Jake Chelios (son of Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios), who all had brief NHL stints.

MacPherson said he's rooting for Smith-Pelly to return to the NHL.

"I want these guys to realize their goals and their dreams," he said. "That would be a great story, in my eyes, to have somebody like Devante make it back to the NHL."

Photos Courtesy: Alexander Korkka and Yury Kuzmin, Kontinental Hockey League Photo

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