SAN JOSE — Joel Ward isn’t ruling out the possibility that he could become the first NHL player to join the protests sweeping through the NFL by taking a knee during the national anthem at an upcoming Sharks game.
As one of roughly 30 black players in the NHL, Ward has first-hand experience with racism. He knows what it’s like to be racially profiled by the police and he’s troubled by the rhetoric being used by President Donald Trump toward African American protestors in the NFL and NBA.
“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t cross out,” Ward said when asked by the Mercury News whether he’d consider taking a knee during the national anthem at an upcoming Sharks game.
“I’ve experienced a lot of racism myself in hockey and on a day-to-day occurrence. I haven’t really sat down to think about it too much yet, but I definitely wouldn’t say no to it.”
Ward, a Canadian player who’s the son of Barbadian immigrants, felt the sting of racism the first time he laced up the skates to play in a youth hockey game as a nine or 10-year-old in Toronto. Kids were calling him names and making racial slurs toward him from the stands.
“I had no clue what the words meant until my parents educated me about what was going on in my surroundings. 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,” Ward said. “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.
“I’ve experienced racism as a kid, as an adult. I think I’ll always experience it.”
Racism followed Ward to the NHL and reared its ugly head when he scored a series-clinching goal for the Washington Capitals in overtime of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in 2012.
After the game, Ward received death threats from Bruins fans on social media who addressed him with a torrent of racially-charged language.
But the racism that Ward has experienced in his life extend beyond the rink.
Ward, who wears No. 42 as a tribute to Jackie Robinson, sympathizes with the Black Lives Matter movement and the national anthem protests started by Colin Kaepernick in the NFL last season because he’s been the subject of racial profiling by police throughout his life.
“I’ve dealt with it a lot,” Ward said. “I’ve had a few things that have happened to me that you could say are not the norm. I’ve been singled out at different events. I’ve been pulled over. I’ve dealt with racism right to my face.
“It’s just been part of life that you always have to deal with, so when people get into Kaepernick and some of these other guys, saying that they’re disrespecting the flag, it’s not about just that. 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 veteran forward is glad that NFL players are using their statuses as pro athletes to raise awareness to issues of police brutality. On Sunday, more than 200 NFL players took a knee during the national anthem, and three teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans, stayed in the locker room as the Star Spangled Banner was being sung.
On Saturday, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to take a knee during the national anthem.
The protests spilled over into the NHL when Winnipeg Jets all-star forward Blake Wheeler, teammate Jacob Trouba and Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown all expressed support for the social activism in the NFL.
“It’s something that’s pretty serious,” Ward said. “The topic of race is always the elephant in the room. For those guys to use their platform on that stage is uplifting.
“The country as whole has got to rally behind it.”
But Ward doesn’t see the protests sweeping through hockey like they have in the NFL. The NHL is primarily white, just 27.2 percent of its players last season were American born and they tend to come from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds.
The Sharks, for instance, had just five American-born players on their everyday roster last year.
But Ward said his status as a Canadian playing in the U.S. wouldn’t deter him from taking a knee during the national anthem.
“I’ve dealt with it on both sides (of the border). It’s just about standing up for what’s right,” he said.
Joe Pavelski, who captained Team USA during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey last fall, respects athletes’ right to kneel during the national anthem and he’s glad the protests are raising awareness to issues involving police brutality.
“Open discussion has to be taking place. You have to talk about it and you have to be aware of it. It’s the only way things improve is to talk about those tough situations,” the Sharks captain said.
“It’s tough for me to see someone (protesting) the flag and using that anthem — that’s tough to see, at times. But you understand and you respect their right to do it. You just hope that it’s done in a respectful manner and that everyone outside of that stage and that platform is working toward a solution.”
Last year, Pavelski’s head coach on Team USA, John Tortorella of the Columbus Blue Jackets, said he would bench anyone who protested the national anthem during the World Cup.
But Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said Tuesday that he would back Ward if he decides to take a knee during the Star Spangled Banner this season.
“I went to law school. I’m a big freedom of speech guy. Everyone has the right to message how they want to,” the Sharks said.
“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.”
Ward said he’s discussed his dilemma with general manager Doug Wilson, who’s also expressed support.
“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.”
— Logan Couture left practice early Tuesday after falling to the ice during an entanglement in front of the net. Couture skated off the ice without using his right leg to take strides.
The Sharks all-star center missed 30 games in 2015-16 because he fractured his fibula in his right leg.
But DeBoer doesn’t think Couture suffered a “serious” injury Tuesday.
“He just went down a little awkwardly,” he said. “We’ve got our fingers crossed, but I don’t think it’s serious.”
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