Washington Capitals veteran Joel Ward said he was stunned to learn that his close friend, Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, was the target of what was perceived as a racially motivated act when a fan tossed a banana peel at him during an NHL exhibition game Thursday in London, Ontario.
“It was shocking, to be honest with you,” Ward said before the Capitals departed for Friday night’s preseason contest in Chicago. Ward, like Simmonds, is black.
“I’m from Toronto and London is only a couple hours west of there. It’s a little disturbing to see something like that happen, but it goes to show that it’s still out there and it still exists.”
The incident came as less of a surprise to former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes, who, as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, had a banana hurled at him while playing in Montreal during the 2002 playoffs.
Weekes and Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, were in Washington on Friday as part of an NHL delegation attending the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 41st annual legislative conference.
“We all looked at each other across the table [Thursday night] like, ‘Did we just hear this? Did this really happen?’ ” Weekes said. “We were in disbelief. But at the same time, as much as it’s disheartening and despicable, I can understand why it happened. The reason why I can understand why it happened is because there is still a segment of people out there who still have this mind-set.”
Weekes, who works as an analyst for the NHL Network, called for the league and local authorities to aggressively pursue and prosecute the banana peel-tossing spectator and called out those in the crowd who did not help security identify the rogue fan.
“They shouldn’t pretend they don’t know who did it,” Weekes said. “No, you know who did it. Shame on all of those people who were sitting beside him.”
Weekes added: “Whether it’s a lifetime ban, or a two year ban . . . the National Hockey League needs to implement some very harsh punishment for these people. Because, ultimately, who does it reflect back on? It reflects back on our league and our game. It looks terrible.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, meantime, called the incident “stupid and ignorant” as it made headlines across North America, and London Mayor Joe Fontana said in a letter of apology sent to Simmonds that the city was left “angry and offended” by the act.
The banana peel was thrown from the upper deck at John Labatt Center as Simmonds raced toward the Detroit Red Wings’ net in the shootout.
Simmonds shook off the distraction and scored anyway.
The 23-year-old Flyer played down the incident Friday, saying in a statement: “It was unfortunate that this incident happened but I am above this sort of stuff. This is something that is out of my control.”
Ward and Simmonds live near one another in Scarborough, Ontario, and work out in the summer along with fellow black NHL players Chris and Anthony Stewart. Ward said he was irked by the fact that Thursday’s incident happened in his home province.
Ward added that while he was subjected to some racist taunts as a youngster, he’s never experienced it in the NHL.
“It was more shocking, especially in a hockey market like that, too,” Ward said. “When I first heard, I thought it was London, England. It was surprising to see something like that happen so close to home for us.”