San Jose Sharks forward Joel Ward says he hasn’t ruled out kneeling in protest of racial injustice during the national anthem at an upcoming game, reports The Mercury News’ Paul Gackle. One of roughly 30 black players out of over 700 in the NHL, Ward would be the first to kneel in a league that’s largely avoided political expression.
“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t cross out,” Ward said when asked whether he’d consider taking a knee during the anthem. “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.”
The NFL saw widespread activism by its players on Sunday following comments from President Donald Trump calling on owners to fire any players who kneel during the national anthem. The protests began last year by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in order to bring attention to racial injustice and police brutality.
Ward was born in Canada to immigrants from Barbados and said he heard racial epithets even while playing hockey as a kid. Now entering his 11th year in the NHL, he brings a unique perspective to a Sharks locker room that’s primarily white players from North America and Europe.
“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.”
Ward, who wears No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson, is the first NHL player to say publicly that he’s considering joining other athletes in protesting during the national anthem. Other hockey players, such as Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler, Matt Hendricks, and Jacob Trouba, have spoken on the matter, but none have said they’d consider kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Sharks forward praises his fellow NHL players who were willing to speak out. “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.”
An aspect of the situation that’s been different for the NHL compared to the NFL or NBA, which also had its own run-in with the current administration recently, is that most NHL players are not American. That includes Ward, who said he wouldn’t let that stop him from expressing himself if needed. “I’ve dealt with it on both sides (of the border). It’s just about standing up for what’s right,” he said.
Sharks coach Peter DeBoer and captain Joe Pavelski both said they’d back Ward if he decided to kneel for the anthem, and general manager Doug Wilson also told Ward he’d support him. The team also released a statement:
“The San Jose Sharks deeply respect each individual’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and personal expression.”
The NHL has largely tried to stay out of the political spotlight, although it inadvertently stepped into it anyway with the Penguins’ White House visit announcement on Sunday. Now with sports and politics colliding more than ever, Ward could be the first NHL player to take a stand by taking a knee.