Washington Capitals’ winger Joel Ward scored the game winning goal 2:57 into overtime of Game 7 of their first round Stanley Cup Playoff series last night. The Capitals knocked out the defending champion Boston Bruins and, in the process, Ward made history as the first black NHL player to score a Game 7 OT winner.
“All of a sudden, there was a blocked shot by (teammate Mike Knuble) and I knew we had a small window to go up the ice. I just said to myself, ‘Go follow up the play,’” Ward said to the Washington Post. “Words can’t really describe it. It was a sense of relief, excitement. It was just unbelievable.
“The puck was just sitting there. I just took a whack. When it was over, it really hit me when the guys were coming off the bench.”
Ward, who was born in Canada and whose family is from Barbados, is one of 28 active black players in the NHL. He scored seven goals during last years playoffs as a member of the Nashville Predators and had been much maligned by Capitals fans after signing a $12 million deal last off-season.
Ward scored just six goals in the regular season, the last coming on Jan. 7. George McPhee, the Capitals’ general manager even admitted that he overpaid to sign Ward last July, but that all stopped mattering last night in Boston.
“For me personally, I thought I may have lost a little bit of the respect of my own teammates being on the outside so much,” Ward said. “I definitely do play for the respect of them. When you’re on the outside it’s a little tough.”
Ward and the Capitals celebrated their stunning upset win — Washington was the seventh seed in the East and made the playoffs on the second-to-last day of the season — angry Bruins fans took to Twitter and unleashed a barrage of racist tweets. Most used the n-word, some him a “gorilla,” many made references to Hockey being a “white man’s sport,” and some told Ward to “go play basketball.”
This incident is the second issue of racial taunts toward a black player this season. During a preseason game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings in London, Ontario, someone in the stands threw a banana at Flyers’ winger Wayne Simmonds during a shootout attempt.
Simmonds still managed to score on the play and shrugged off the incident after the game. “I caught it from the side of my eye,” Simmonds said on Sept. 23. “When you’re a black man playing in a predominantly white man’s sport, you’ve got to come to expect things like that.”
There is irony in this goal coming against Boston and the reaction from Bruins “fans.” Ward scored the goal against Tim Thomas, the goaltender who refused to attend the White House celebration of the Bruins’ championship because of his disdain of President Obama.
It was also the Bruins who broke hockey’s color barrier 58 years ago when Willie O’Ree became hockey’s first black player. Ward, like Simmonds, shrugged off the racist remarks, saying to USA Today that the tweets shocked him but “didn’t ruin (his) day.”
“It doesn’t faze me at all,” Ward said. “We won, and we are moving on. People are going to say what they want to say.
Ward was told about the tweets by teammate Jeff Halpern on the team flight back to Washington. Halpern apologized to Ward for having to see that behavior, but he took it in stride.
“I think he was telling me had my back, and felt bad that (some Twitter users) were talking about the negative side, instead of how we are moving on,” Ward said. “It has no effect on me whatsoever. I’ve been playing this game long enough and I’ve not had any encounters of that nature.”
Ward told USA Today that he plans on thanking Capitals’ fans on Twitter for their support and has already received an apology from one of the angry fans. He said that while he did have some racist experiences in junior hockey in Toronto, he’s had nothing but positive experiences in the NHL and doesn’t fear for his safety.
“I’m definitely the one black guy in a room with 20 white guys,” Ward said. “There are definitely some cultural differences, such as taste in music, but I haven’t heard anything derogatory.
“I’m pretty laid-back and I get along with a lot of people. I don’t fear anything like that, and I have a good group of guys to protect me.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith