Tim Wharnsby·Opinion

Joel Ward deserves our respect

Joel Ward says he "wouldn't cross out" the possibility of kneeling during the national anthem. As Tim Wharnsby writes, the San Jose Sharks forward has experienced racism as a person and hockey player. To those of us who don't know what it is like to be like Ward, we should listen to him.

San Jose Sharks forward has experienced racism as a person and hockey player

The San Jose Sharks Joel Ward, shown at centre in this 2016 file photo, says he "wouldn't cross off" kneeling for the national anthem. (File/Getty Images)

I've admired Joel Ward for a long time.

So, if he wants to kneel during the national anthem, that's fine with me. (UPDATE: Ward posted a note on Twitter that he won't be kneeling during the anthem).

The San Jose Sharks veteran forward told the San Jose Mercury News this week that he "wouldn't cross out" the possibility of kneeling during the national anthem.

Last Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump ignited this kneeling during the anthem controversy when he bellowed at a rally in Alabama that NFL owners should fire any "son of a bitch" who kneels during the national anthem.

The next morning Trump rescinded an invitation to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors after their MVP Steph Curry stated that he would vote "no" to a championship visit to the White House.

Black athletes, like Ward, have used their status in the sporting world to protest and speak their mind for decades.

If you need a history lesson, visit the 1960s. Muhammad Ali refused induction into the United States Army for the Vietnam War. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze, respectively in the 200-metre race at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, raised black-gloved fists on the podium as what they called a "human rights salute."

NHL, players rarely outspoken

Hockey players, for the most part, don't engage in controversy. They have long been considered the nice guys of the professional sport. Gordie Howe set the example during his career and superstars like Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid have followed Mr. Hockey's ways.

Just look at NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's decision to take away the Olympic Games from the players. Few spoke out against Bettman's shortsightedness, even though Olympic gold has become a prize as important as the Stanley Cup.

NFL players kneeling during the national anthem began with quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a preseason game last summer because he was "not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour."

The 36-year-old Ward has experienced racism as a person and hockey player. To those of us who don't know what it is like to be like Ward, we should listen to him.

This is a thoughtful, open-minded man who has been through a lot. Raised in Scarborough, Ont., he lost his father Randal when he was 14 years old. Dad suffered a stroke while watching his son play at the venerable St. Michael's College Arena in Toronto. He passed away a few days later.

'A genuine person'

The younger Ward had every right to want to play junior close to home, to be near his mother Cecilia. But when the Owen Sound Attack drafted Ward, he went to the Ontario Hockey League's smallest market without a whimper. He once told me he had to get out a map of Ontario to find out where Owen Sound was situated.

All he did in his four years there was win friends and influence people. He had a tryout with the Detroit Red Wings after Owen Sound. He likely could have landed somewhere in the minor pro ranks. Instead, he decided to attend the University of Prince Edward Island, study sociology and play for the UPEI Panthers.

Like Owen Sound, he made an impression in small-town Charlottetown and earned his degree. One of his professors, Judy-Lynn Richards, once told me how much she enjoyed teaching Ward.

"He remains to this day the most polite student, a real gentleman, and a genuine person," she said. "I am so proud of Joel. He believed in himself and never wavered from his beliefs about his abilities.

"I use to yell my support from the stands in the Civic Centre. Now I yell it from the couch when I watch him play on TV."

Undrafted, Ward never stopped believing he would one day play in the NHL. He now has played in more than 750 NHL regular season and playoff games.

You may not support Ward if he decides to kneel during the national anthem, but he deserves your respect because as Joe South wrote in his wonderful song Walk a Mile in My Shoes, "If you could see you through my eyes, instead your own ego, I believe you'd be surprised to see that you've been blind."


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