Joel Ward wears No. 42 for the Washington Capitals as a tribute to Jackie Robinson. But he never expected what happened Wednesday night.
Ward hosted an advance screening of the movie “42” at the AMC Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights and gave a speech about what the number and Robinson meant to him. He told the story of how his late father called him “Chief” and what he later figured that to mean.
“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 — somebody that kind of went through so many different obstacles [to] overcome a lot, I guess, especially in that time period.”
Ward was assigned No. 27 when he broke into the NHL with the Minnesota Wild, and then No. 29 with the Nashville Predators. Those are goalie numbers, he said, so when he signed a four-year, $12 million contract with the Caps in July 2011, he wanted to pick a number that had meaning.
“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,” Ward said. “No better number than 42. [I] just try to represent the number as best I can.”
Ward grew up in Toronto the son of parents from Barbados. He wasn’t a baseball fan; he was a Chicago Blackhawks fan. Growing up he idolized goaltender Kevin Weekes, a family friend, 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. Since learning more of Robinson’s story, 42 took on greater significance.
“Watching the movie [Wednesday] and seeing the number, it was pretty cool,” Ward said. “It was pretty touching to see. … Having the number actually really means a lot to me. I don’t really go about telling everybody about it, you know. But I definitely do hold a lot of value to it.”
Ward, who missed a second straight game Thursday with a bruised left knee, is well-liked and was popular in Nashville because of his play and charitable efforts. Teammates can’t wait to have him back. That includes defenseman Steve Oleksy, who enjoyed Wednesday night’s festivities.
“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,” 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.”
Left wing Martin Erat skated again Thursday but did not play against the Carolina Hurricanes as he tries to come back from an apparent left leg injury suffered last weekend. Erat did extra work with the scratches and Oates said he “looked better.”
Oates said he was hopeful that Erat could play Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Forward Brooks Laich was scheduled to see another doctor after suffering an injury April 4 that Oates said is affecting his groin. Laich missed the first 28 games of the season with a groin injury.
Oates did not have a further update on Laich’s status Thursday.
Tom Poti (back) skated with teammates again and Oates called the veteran defenseman “almost ready.” But even when Poti is healthy, it might be difficult to crack the lineup.
“We’ve got some numbers, which is a good position to be in,” Oates said. “And I’m sure he understands that.”