Black History Month: Ex-Capitals forward Joel Ward opens up about racism, importance of representation in hockey

On Sunday afternoon, Joel Ward will walk back out onto the ice at what is now called Capital One Arena and drop the ceremonial puck as the Washington Capitals celebrate Black History Month. It wasn’t that long ago that Ward was lacing up the skates in the locker room that is a short walk from the ice, and slipping on a red, white and blue Capitals jersey. It was the jersey he was sporting when he scored one of the biggest goals in Washington, D.C., hockey history.

And while it’s almost eight years later, his eyes still light up with the memories — of skating in Game 7 at the Bruins’ arena, TD Garden; of burying the rebound of a Mike Knuble shot past Tim Thomas; of celebrating with pure and utter jubilation.

Those memories, though, are clouded by what happened after.

“People wanted me dead for the color of my skin,” he said of tweets that appeared on social media soon after. “I was like, ‘Oh, geez, my God, they want me dead.’ I was like, it’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, you suck.’ Like, to say, ‘I want you dead’ because of the color of my skin, I was like, ‘Damn.’ So that was kind of an eye-opener.”

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The racism Ward experienced following his goal was not his first encounter with it, nor was it his last. He experienced racism throughout his playing days, even as a kid growing up in Ontario where he’d often go home and ask his mom, “What’s this mean? Why’d they call me this or that?” But he credits his parents and his passion for the game for overpowering any negativity he faced. 

“I loved it, I loved the game,” he told Sporting News last month in St. Louis before the NHL All-Star Game. “I think just watching, growing up at home we had family dinners and you’d watch the Leafs’ game at home. Hockey was a big part of our family. Saturdays we had the traditional wakeup, watch cartoons, put your hockey gear on, drive to the rink with your gear on, play a little hockey, come home and get ready to watch the Leafs at night type thing. So, you know, a lot of family moments. I thought that was very special to me growing up.”

Over the course of 726 NHL games, Ward potted 133 goals and added 171 assists between the Capitals, Wild, Predators and Sharks. His road to the league wasn’t easy. He wound up going to college at the University of Prince Edward Island after four years with Owen Sound (OHL).  After a year with the Houston Aeros (AHL), he signed a contract with the Wild in 2006. He got a cup of coffee with the team, but it wasn’t until 2008-09 that he stuck in the NHL, with the Predators. His favorite moment — aside from that special goal — was a Stanley Cup Final with San Jose in 2016.

As much as Ward’s career was about playing the game he grew up with, it was also about representation. That latter element was reinforced for him during his trip to St. Louis when he took the NHL Black Hockey History Tour — a mobile museum that is part of Hockey is For Everyone, a joint NHL and NHLPA initiative that has celebrated diversity and inclusion in hockey since 1996.

“Representation is huge, 100 percent, and I think it’s, you know, we’ve got to get out there — current, past, former players and — and let the kids know that,” said Ward, who looked up to Kevin Weekes as a kid. “When the kids pick up a hockey stick, they fall in love with it. It’s the initial picking up the stick [that’s important], and that’s what we have to do, get out there and do more.”

And he knows from experience that those involved will need to deal with hate as they try to get kids to love hockey.

“To see like Anthony Duclair playing the All-Star Game and the representation and to see kids that, ‘Oh, he’s in the All-Star Game.’ So we’re not just here but we’re making an impact on the game, too, and, and that’s very special to see,” he said. “It’s huge. I mean, you know, racism is always going to be there. It’s a tough topic, I know, for a lot of people, but, you know, we just want to say, ‘Hey, it’s equal rights, we love the game and you can’t be hating on us to the color of the skin.'”

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