Joel Ward looked at the list of numbers available to him when he signed with the Washington Capitals in the summer of 2011 and No. 42 stuck out. After being assigned No. 29 with the Nashville Predators, Ward wanted something with more meaning.
Jackie Robinson wore 42, and though Ward didn’t grow up a baseball fan or even in the United States, he grew to appreciate a pioneer for black athletes.
“I got a chance to kind of change my number, pick a different number, and I definitely wanted to pay tribute,” Ward said. “It was a new chapter for me and I wanted to kind of pay tribute to a man that kind of paved the way for guys like me. No better number than 42. Just try to represent the number as best I can.”
Ward hosted a screening of the movie “42” at Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights on Wednesday night along with some teammates and Caps staff members. In his speech introducing the movie, the 32-year-old right wing from Toronto recalled his father introducing him as his “chief.” He didn’t think much of it until his dad died, then he figured there was more to that than just a word.
“I just tried to interpret that for myself as he maybe wanted me to be a leader and a difference-maker,” Ward said. “That’s why I kind of looked up [to] Jackie Robinson as just being a leader and an icon of somebody that kind of went through so many different obstacles and overcome a lot, I guess, especially in that time period.”
Ward looked up to ex-NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes when growing up, even more so than Robinson or Willie O’Ree, who tried to blaze a trail for black hockey players. But he became more familiar with the Brooklyn Dodgers star’s story of breaking baseball’s color barrier when he borrowed a biography of Robinson from a blogger in Nashville.
After signing a four-year, $12 million deal with the Caps as a free agent in July 2011, Ward got rid of a “goalie’s number,” 29, to pay tribute to Robinson. He said wearing No. 42 feels different.
“Yeah it definitely does. Watching the movie yesterday and seeing the number it was pretty cool,” Ward said. “It was pretty touching to see. I knew coming here it was a new chapter for me and having the number actually it really means a lot to me. I don’t really go about telling everybody about, you know. But I definitely do hold a lot of value to it.”
Ward got chills when the Caps and Warner Brothers approached him about hosting Wednesday’s screening. He practiced his speech in the car on the way to the event and conceded being nervous. “It was just a big blur,” he said.
“To hear the back story of why Joel wears No. 42 and to hear his speech, he gave an unbelievable speech to introduce the movie and things like that,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “For Joel to wear No. 42 with the meaning behind it and to represent the number like he does, it’s unbelievable to be around a guy like that.”
Ward, who’s out with a bruised left knee, is well-liked within the Caps’ locker room, and his community contributions in Nashville made him popular despite spending just three seasons with the Predators.
By excelling in the playoffs with the Predators, Ward turned himself into an NHL regular, but he’s also well-aware of history, and not just in his own sport.
“Such a character guy in our locker room,” Oleksy said. “Obviously what Jackie Robinson did for the sport of baseball, Joel can relate to that in hockey. He represents the number very, very well.”