Only in America, some might say, could a thrilling Stanley Cup playoffs game become immersed in the percolating racial tensions that often erupt into full boil in a country with a painful past of slavery and segregation.
Toronto-born Joel Ward was a hero in the U.S. capital on Thursday — and not just because he scored the winning Game 7 goal in overtime to eliminate the Stanley Cup-defending Boston Bruins by a score of 2-1.
Ward is black — his parents were born in Barbados — and he slipped the puck past a man who was Public Enemy No. 1 among D.C. hockey fans: Tim Thomas, who garnered headlines earlier this year for refusing to join his team at the White House to be congratulated by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Thomas has since insisted that his decision had nothing to do with Obama’s race, but was instead motivated by a dislike of big government. To many, however, that didn’t seem to matter.
In the exhilarating aftermath of Ward’s series-ending goal, thousands of hockey fans in D.C. and beyond took to social media platforms to revel in the fact that a black man ended Thomas’s Stanley Cup dreams following his snubbing of America’s first black president.
“Great win by the Caps, and is it crazy that Joel Ward scored on Tim Thomas? Special delivery from the president,” Brian Mitchell, a former NFL player and now a sportscaster, tweeted.
“Poetic justice,” tweeted another African-American hockey fan.
“Joel Ward for president! Let’s REALLY make Tim Thomas angry,” wrote Cary O’Reilly, a legal reporter for Bloomberg in the U.S. capital.
Others directed vile racial slurs Ward’s way, prompting condemnation from at least one teammate, Alexander Semin, and the NHL.
“The people responsible for these comments have no place associating themselves with our game,” the league said in a statement.
Others have pointed out that the tweets in question, many of them from apparent Bruins fans, were ironic considering the team was the first to break the NHL’s colour barrier when it drafted Willie O’Ree in 1958.
The Bruins issued a statement expressing disappointment in the insults, saying, “these classless, ignorant views are in no way a reflection of anyone associated with the Bruins organization.”
Ward, for his part, said Thursday that while the messages were “shocking to see, it didn’t ruin my day.”
“It doesn’t faze me at all,” Ward told USA Today. “We won, and we are moving on .… People are going to say what they want to say.”
He added he’s never had any issues with racism while playing in the NHL, still largely populated by Canadian players.
“I’m definitely the one black guy in a room with 20 white guys,” Ward said. “There are definitely some cultural differences, such as taste in music, but I’ve never heard anything derogatory.”
Thomas has vehemently denied his decision to forgo the traditional White House visit had anything to do with Obama’s race. Instead, he said, he is opposed to the size and scope of the federal government.
“I believe the federal government has grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties and property of the people,” Thomas, an American, wrote on his Facebook page in January in the type of talking points often heard at Tea Party rallies.
“This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion, both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.”
Some apparently suspected differently, including several creative Capitals fans who taunted Thomas throughout the series with Obama masks, posters and slogans.
“HOPE You Get Pulled,” read one sign that featured the iconic Shepard Fairey 2008 campaign poster of the president.
Another poked fun at his political beliefs, waving a flyer reading: “Hey Tim! I totally printed this using taxpayer $$$$!!”
Paul Paformak, a diehard Caps fan from Arlington, Va., said Washington sports fans are colour-blind and their anger at Thomas stemmed from his insertion of politics into sports.
“D.C.’s a great town because we don’t care about that stuff. Those racist slurs, for us here, we just don’t understand that mentality at all,” said Paformak, 45, a policy analyst at the Library of Congress.
“We love our athletes here, we don’t care what colour or nationality they are, and we also don’t think you should bring politics into the game the way Thomas did. This is such a political town, we have to deal with that stuff so much, so sports is an outlet here, an escape.”
Ward’s moment in the spotlight comes after a strange path to the NHL. The 31-year-old was never drafted to the league, instead playing for four years at the University of Prince Edward Island before going pro.
Last year, he was a playoff standout for the Nashville Predators, racking up seven goals and 13 points in 12 games after a mediocre regular season.
His first season with the Caps had been a disappointing one, something he acknowledged himself following Wednesday night’s game.
“I thought at one moment I might have been slowly losing the respect of my teammates a little bit from a little down funk. I was kind of hoping to get back in there and contribute offensively,” he said.
“Obviously this has been the biggest goal I ever scored and it felt good.”
And how. Within seconds of the goal on a rebound off Thomas, social media lit up with hockey fans not only asking “Joel who?” but also sending him thousands of cyber high-fives. In D.C., he became the top trending topic on Twitter despite the fact that sporting good stores in the city don’t even stock jerseys emblazoned with his number, 42.
DCist, a popular city website, wrote that Ward has “in an instant etched his name in Washington sports history.”
While Caps fans have enjoyed a longtime love affair with their Russian players, Paformak pointed out, Semin and superstar Alexander Ovechkin had better make room for Ward.
“He’s a hero today, that’s for sure,” Paformak said.
“The reason we signed him was because of his great playoff success last season in Nashville. He wasn’t the most fantastic player this season, he didn’t really deliver, but there’s something in that guy’s head that makes him step up during that playoffs. We love him for it.”
With files from The Associated Press