On Tuesday, San Jose Sharks forward Joel Ward joined the chorus of voices weighing in on kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest against racial injustice. In an exclusive interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Ward, one of only approximately 30 black players in the NHL, said that he might join those protesting racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem before an upcoming Sharks game.
His comments come following a weekend of intense national debate over the same issue in the NFL, where dozens of players knelt in solidarity against racial profiling and police brutality during the Star-Spangled Banner.
When asked whether he might kneel by the San Jose Mercury News’ Paul Gackle, the 36-year-old Canadian said “It’s definitely something I wouldn’t cross out.”
“I’ve experienced a lot of racism myself in hockey and on a day-to-day occurrence,” Ward continued. “I haven’t really sat down to think about it too much yet, but I definitely wouldn’t say no to it.”
As one of the few athletes of color in the NHL, Ward has dealt with racism throughout his decade-long career in the league. One of the worst instances came after the former Capital scored the series-clinching OTGWG in Game Seven against the Boston Bruins during the first round of the 2012 playoffs. Ward faced a deluge of racist messages on social media after the game, some even including death threats.
But as the son of Barbadian immigrants playing a sport where the vast majority of players are white, racism in the hockey world was unfortunately nothing new to Ward, who wears #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson. Even as a child, people would yell racial slurs at him from the stands as he skated on the ice.
“I had no clue what the words meant until my parents educated me about what was going on in my surroundings,” Ward said. “I was just a kid who fell in love with the game and picked up a hockey stick. I didn’t really look at it as color. As I got older and looked across the locker rooms and dressings rooms, I realized I’m the only black kid in the whole arena.”
When speaking of the possibility that he might kneel during the anthem, Ward made sure to emphasize the original meaning of the protest, which has largely been eclipsed by talk of disrespect as the debate around the controversy has raged on.
“It’s just been part of life that you always have to deal with, so when people get into [Colin] Kaepernick and some of these other guys, saying that they’re disrespecting the flag, it’s not about just that,” Ward said. “It’s about creating awareness about what people, like myself, go through on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s going to the mall or whatever.”
The fact that the controversial protest focuses specifically on police brutality in the United States doesn’t make a difference to the Canadian-born forward. Ward voiced his commitment to standing up (or in this case, kneeling) against injustice no matter where one comes from.
“I’ve dealt with it on both sides (of the border),” Ward said. “It’s just about standing up for what’s right.”
If Ward does choose to partake in the protest, he’ll have the support of Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer.
“I went to law school,” DeBoer said. “I’m a big freedom of speech guy. Everyone has the right to message how they want to. That’s what makes our countries great, Canada and the U.S., is the freedom to able to express yourself if you feel like you’ve been wronged or there’s an injustice.”
The Sharks’ general manager, Doug Wilson, also echoed his support for whatever decision Ward makes.
“Doug’s been unbelievable,” Ward said. “He agrees that it’s freedom of speech. Obviously, he’s aware of what’s going on. I’ve let him know how I feel about the whole issue and he’s been open to listening and offering support.”
The Sharks next play on Thursday in Anaheim against the Ducks, followed by a contest against the Arizona Coyotes at home in San Jose on Saturday.
Headline photo: Patrick Smith
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