They call him the “Game Seven Gunner.” “The Washington Wizard.” “Mr. OT.” “Goal Ward.”1
They also call him a nigger. Freely. Assisted by the pseudo-anonymity of the internet.
Canadian-born Joel Randal Ward has ascended from an undrafted unknown to an NHL playoff stalwart in his 10 year NHL career. From Minnesota to Nashville to Washington, Ward has gained a reputation as one of the League’s more reliable defensive forwards. But beyond his physical presence, Ward has shown a scorer’s touch both in the regular season and playoffs that keeps him near the front page of opponents’ scouting reports.
It was the timeliness of Ward’s touch that catapulted him to the front page of almost every North American sports news outlet during the 2012 NHL playoffs – for all of the wrong reasons.
April 25. Round One, Game 7. Ward’s Washington Capitals were playing the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, in Boston. The 7th-seeded Caps had pushed the Bruins to the brink and, after losing Game 6 at home, jumped out to a 1-0 lead on the road in the first period of Game 7. After Boston tied the game in the second, and both teams survived a tense and scoreless third period, sudden-death overtime beckoned. Barely three minutes into overtime, Ward and linemate Mike Knuble pressed forward in a 2-on-1 breakaway. Knuble’s attempt was stopped, but Ward positioned himself for the rebound and scored in the ensuing scramble to send the Caps to the Eastern Conference Semis and all of Boston into a fury.
And that’s when the hatred came out.
Ward was immediately skewered on social media. Twitter exploded with vitriol as fans of the Bruins took to the medium to voice their disgrace.
“You guys let the nigger score? #ImDone” – @anthonymorose
“So…the nigger scores the game winner? #shitty” – @Flesher91
“Of all people to score it had to be the Nigger…” – @GeraldHart635
“FUCKJNG NIGGER! #bruins” – @ImPrincessJessi
“#bruins just got beat by a nigger I thought hockey was a white mans game #wtf fuck ward” – @CrispoCream
“stupid nigger go play basketball hockey is a white sport” – @zvanasse30
“Bruins lost to a dumb cotton picking purple dicked Nigger!!!!” – @Gaucherhockey24
“What a coincidence, a nigger stole the stanley cup from the bruins! I tell you right now its not stereo typing.” – @Clifford_BigRed
But wait. There’s more.
“Fucking stupid arrogant, smelly, useless, waste of life, sad excuse for a NHL hockey playing NIGGER!!!!” – @grizzlymarshall
“that nigger deserves to hang.” – @EthandaGXD
#go2thenba. #gobacktothejungle. #gobacktoafrica. The hashtags just kept on coming. Whereas the internet has always been a place for people to spout thoughts without thinking, this was different. This was pointed, immediate, and for some reason just loud enough to get people’s attention. The Boston Bruins released a statement the following day decrying the reactions as “classless, ignorant views” not representative of the organization. The NHL put out a statement, as well. Caps owner Ted Leonsis let loose in his own blog post stating there should be “zero tolerance for this kind of hate mongering,” and asking, hopefully, that these people be “publically identified and pay a huge price for their beliefs.”
And therein lies the problem.
The internet is a strange place. On the one hand, it is our most public forum: it allows for the free flow of information and ideas from east to west without any real hindrance. It is open to all, and has become the all-encompassing intersection of humanity that many thought would never exist. On the other hand, it is the wildest of the western frontiers, and its sheer vastness provides cover for the anonymous hatemongering Leonsis would like to see outlawed. On the internet, you can be anyone you choose. And if one persona is vilified and shamed out of existence, no worries – you can always create a new one. Throw in the extreme fidelity that comes with being a diehard fan of any particular sports team, and you have just enough underbrush to cover you while you lob N-grenades across the Twitterverse.
For his part, Joel Ward was gracious and diplomatic, telling USA Today that the comments didn’t faze him at all. “No hard feelings from me,” he said. “This is a game.” But why should the athletes have to be the diplomats? Where have we, as a society and as a collective universe of “sports fans”, gotten to where we feel entitled to spew hatred towards professionals and games that we love? Where does fandom end and racism begin? And why do we feel the need to conflate the two?
As a hockey fan, as a Black man, and as a Black man who was once a Black kid playing hockey, just reading these tweets makes me sick. The reaction is visceral, not just because I know right from wrong, but because of the ease these words seem to flow from anonymous fingers. The internet has made it easy to hate, and not every professional can be expected to shrug off the negativity. A few tweets may not affect Ward’s bottom line, but it sure as hell can affect his psyche – no matter how slightly. What would never be said to a man’s face should never come across his screen; “keyboard courage” is a cancer. The Boston Bruins and the NHL deserve credit for acknowledging the issue, but we know that is merely a step and won’t stop the problem.
The silver lining? “Goal Ward”2 struck again in the 2015 playoffs, scoring a crucial goal that helped eliminate the New York Islanders in Round 1, and a last-second game-winner against the New York Rangers in the Conference Semifinals. Unlike 2012, there were no press releases and no statements made. Ward was just another player, doing what he does, and no one seemed to hate him for it. Why can’t it always be that way?
1. I have no idea if he has ever been called any of these nicknames. But, to be fair, I really like Goal Ward. I hope that one sticks. And someone gives me credit.
2. See? Accept it. Love it.