San Jose’s Joel Ward is considering becoming first NHL player to kneel during the anthem. (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

As the number of NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem went from a handful to over 200 this past weekend, MLB saw its first player do so: Oakland’s Bruce Maxwell. With the NHL regular season set to get underway Oct. 4, Sharks winger Joel Ward said he is open to becoming the first player in that league to stage an anthem protest.

“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t cross out,” Ward said of taking a knee, in comments published Tuesday by the San Jose Mercury News.

“I’ve experienced a lot of racism myself in hockey and on a day-to-day occurrence,” Ward added. “I haven’t really sat down to think about it too much yet, but I definitely wouldn’t say no to it.”

The 36-year-old Ward, who wears the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson, is one of approximately 30 black players in the NHL. The NFL’s anthem protests were begun last season by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who said he was trying to bring attention to racial injustice, particularly the killing of unarmed black men by police.

Kaepernick became a free agent in March and has been unable to sign with an NFL team, a situation many observers ascribe to his social activism. In his absence, some NFL players continued to stage protests at the start of the season, and many more joined them after President Trump repeatedly criticized the protests, in one case using profane language.

“It’s something that’s pretty serious,” Ward said of the NFL’s protests. “The topic of race is always the elephant in the room. For those guys to use their platform on that stage is uplifting. The country as whole has got to rally behind it.”

Ward, who was born and raised in the Toronto area as the son of immigrants from Barbados, told the Mercury News that as his youthful involvement with hockey grew, so did the number of times racial slurs were hurled his way. “I had no clue what the words meant until my parents educated me about what was going on in my surroundings,” he said.

“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 continued. “As I got older and looked across the locker rooms and dressing rooms, I realized I’m the only black kid in the whole arena.”

The former Wild, Predators and Capitals player said of racism, “It’s just been part of life that you always have to deal with, so when people get into Kaepernick and some of these other guys, saying that they’re disrespecting the flag, it’s not about just that. It’s about creating awareness about what people, like myself, go through on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s going to the mall or whatever.”

After scoring an overtime goal to help the Capitals beat the Bruins in a 2012 playoff game, Ward was hit with racist taunts on social media. “I’ve dealt with it a lot,” he said Tuesday.

As the protests have roiled the NFL, some American-born hockey players have offered their thoughts. The Jets’ Blake Wheeler said on Twitter, “Regardless of how it makes you feel individually, these are literally the principles the US was founded on. Come on, Mr. President.”

“Crossing over into the sports world, it hits home a little bit more,” Wheeler said Monday. “It’s just kind of been a bit of a slow boil, you know. The rhetoric, over and over, has just kind of gone a little bit too far, a few too many times. … Some of the language [Trump] used, referencing NFL players, I think that was kind of the last straw for a lot of guys, whichever way they feel about it, to finally voice their opinion.”

The Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews said, “I don’t know if kneeling, sitting, stretching is something I’d really look into doing because to me it’s like a dishonor to the men and women that fight for that flag, fight for the U.S. I don’t think I’d be one of the people to take part in that.”

“I’ve got great buddies that have been in the military and they’ve sacrificed for my freedom, so I’d never want to do anything to disrespect that,” the Bruins’ David Backes said. “My standpoint is that I’m standing for every national anthem with my hand over my heart and I’m staring at that flag recognizing those sacrifices. If I’ve got beef with a social justice issue or something else-wise, I’m going to find different avenues that are not disrespectful, especially to those that are military men and women that give me the freedom to do what I do.”

Sharks Coach Peter DeBoer said Tuesday that he would not have a problem with Ward, or anyone else, taking a knee during the anthem. “I went to law school. I’m a big freedom of speech guy. Everyone has the right to message how they want to,” DeBoer told the Mercury News.

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