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Black History Month

Ward wore No. 42 in Robinson's honor during NHL career

Longtime forward says player who broke baseball's color barrier was 'one of my heroes'

by William Douglas @WdouglasNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

The NHL is celebrating Black History Month in February. Throughout the month, NHL.com will be featuring people of color who have made or are looking to make their mark in the hockey world.

Today, we look at retired NHL forward Joel Ward and his connection to Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.

 

Joel Ward and Jackie Robinson are forever intertwined.

Ward chose to wear No. 42 when he joined the Washington Capitals in 2011 to honor the Brooklyn Dodgers great for the seemingly superhuman grit and grace he exhibited in breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947.

"He's one of my heroes," Ward said. "I thought maybe wearing the number would give me Superman powers."

Ward said he felt super when he scored a series-winning goal in overtime against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

 

[RELATED: More Black Hockey History Month coverage]

 

"I remember (Bruins forward) Benoit Pouliot went to go dump [the puck] in our zone and we were all going to go for a change," Ward said. "(Linemate) Mike Knuble blocked it. When I saw that, it went from 'Eh, end of a shift' to 'Oh, shoot, here we go,' heading down the ice on a 2-on-1."

Knuble skated hard toward the Bruins net and took a backhand shot that goalie Tim Thomas stopped. Ward, the trailer, got the rebound and put it between a sprawled Thomas' legs, giving the Capitals a 2-1 win that eliminated the defending champions and made him an instant hero.

But the moment was bittersweet. Ward was subjected to racist tweets by so-called fans that prompted the Bruins organization to release a statement denouncing the comments as "classless" and "ignorant."

Ward, who wrestled with a whirlwind of emotions following the goal and the social media attacks, looked to Robinson's trailblazing experience for inspiration.

"Having the strength to overcome, to keep fighting and pushing. I had my Jackie Robinson moment," he said. "I scored the goal, a big goal, and saw some success. And knowing that you're just trying to do what everyone else is trying to do and just play the game, and you get backlash. But I persevered, and I wasn't going to let anyone stop me from playing the game I love."

Video: SJS@COL: Ward goes top shelf from in front of the net

Ward, who finished his NHL career in 2018 with 304 points (133 goals, 171 assists) in 726 games for the Capitals, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks, remains influenced by Robinson's legacy even after his retirement. He named his newborn son after the baseball legend. Ward also thinks that all NHL teams should retire No. 22, the number Willie O'Ree wore when he became the League's first black player on Jan. 18, 1958, the same way Major League Baseball uniformly retired Robinson's number in 1997.

He discussed Robinson, his career, O'Ree and his plans with NHL.com as part of the League's Black History Month celebration. Ward will return to Washington on Feb. 23 for a ceremonial puck drop before the Capitals' game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Capital One Arena.

 

Why did you decide to wear Jackie Robinson's No. 42 when you joined the Washington Capitals in 2011-12?

"When I switched over to D.C., it was kind of a new chapter in my life and I wanted to flip it over and do something different. I was kind of thinking, when our equipment guy, Brock (Myles), called me and said 'Hey, what number are you thinking [about wearing]?' I just kind of took a moment to think about things. I had just finished the (Robinson) biography at that time, and I said 'Hey, you know what? Let me see if this is available.' I asked about [No. 42] and, sure enough, it was."

 

Robinson's autobiography, "I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson," resonated with you. Why?

I knew the story. But when you really dive into it in more detail, the more special it is what he did off the field. With any part of history, when you learn a bit more, it's powerful, inspirational. I could not imagine being the only African American at that time playing on an all-white team in a sport that he loved. I think his passion for the game really came through, and the example he set off the field was powerful.

 

Your newborn son has Jackie Robinson's last name as his first name? What's the story behind that?

I tried Jackie but my wife, she said no -- gave it a hard no. We had a friend of ours say, 'Why don't you flip it around and call him Robinson?' We kind of went home that night, and I think my wife knew how special it would be to me if she gives me the go-ahead to name him Robinson. We went with it and stuck with it. He's learning his name a little bit more. He's got some books at home (about Jackie Robinson) that I'm going to tackle with him.

 

Why do you think every NHL team should retire Willie O'Ree's No. 22 the same way MLB teams retired Robinson's No. 42?

"C'mon, how could you not? What he did in paving the way? If it wasn't for Willie, I would have never had played. It's so special to see his story and what he did. Can you imagine playing hockey at that time, being the only brother on the team, in the locker room? You can't even describe it. What he did -- and he's still spreading the word, the love of the game today. Every time you talk to him, he loves it, speaks very highly of it. To see more of us playing, more minorities and kids of color loving the game, and he's still tooling around, it's unbelievable."

 

You've said you're essentially retired from the NHL. What are you doing these days?

"I'm a stay-at-home dad right now, and I love it. But, yes, I love the game too. I watch a lot of games. I feel I've got to get back into it, of course. Over the years, I've had so many great coaches. "Uncle" Barry Trotz, Pete DeBoer … I've learned so much over the years from my coaches. Adam Oates was instrumental in helping me out in thinking the game a different way and my skill level. It would be a crime if I kept all that information and didn't share it with everybody. I'm looking to pass along my knowledge to some kids and, hopefully, some guys will make it to the pro ranks. We need to see more fellas in the National Hockey League, and we need more fellas coaching. That's where I kind of come in. Right now, I'm just enjoying father time, but I definitely want to get back into the game."

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