WASHINGTON - Another highlight reel moment for a black hockey player was diluted Thursday, after the game- and series-winning goal from a Capitals winger was followed by a wave of racially charged comments online.
Moments after right winger Joel Ward shoveled the puck past Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas in the second minute of overtime, hateful speech began popping up on Twitter.
Ward, who is black, had just scored on a rebound after teammate Mike Knuble's breakaway shot, eliminating the Bruins from repeating their Stanley Cup championship and reinvigorating hopes that the Capitals lineup could make it beyond the conference semifinals for the first time since 1998.
There were 123 mentions on the social networking site around midnight Wednesday that included Ward and the N-word. Some users have deleted their comments, though they still appear in search engines.
The response from others expressing disgust at the tweets outweighs the comments themselves, but as of 3 p.m. Thursday, there were more than 8,000 hits on Google related to the racist comments against Ward -- a third of the more than 21,000 posts about the goal itself.
"We are aware of some of the racial comments that were made following our overtime victory last night and are outraged by those individuals who expressed such ignorant comments," said Sergey Kacharov, Capitals spokesman, in a written statement. "We find such comments to be totally unacceptable."
ESPN NHL reports the Bruins, in a statement, said the organization was "very disappointed by the racist comments that were made following the game last night. These classless, ignorant views are in no way a reflection of anyone associated with the Bruins organization."
Some of the ensuing tweets simply expressed joy about the outcome of the game. Others noted what they might be inferring by mentioning Ward's race and the town in which he was playing. Still others posted unabashed comments with their sentiments on Ward's race.
(Editor's Note: After consideration, WTOP has removed tweets that contained racial slurs and profanity.)
If I pointed out that Joel Ward, a Black man, scored winning goal on TIM THOMAS in BOSTON, people might think I'm inferring a thing or two.— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) April 26, 2012
Seeing these racist tweets Bruins fans tweeted Ab Joel Ward scoring the game winning goal makes me realize racism is far from dead. #noclass— Darrius Barnes (@D_Barnes25) April 26, 2012
"The words don't hurt me at all," Joel Ward, Capitals' right winger, told WTOP. "I want the team to win, and that's the main focus for me."
"I'm just more upset that it took accolades away from people like Braden Holtby," Ward says of his goaltender teammate. "It's just terrible."
Learn more about Ward's reaction here.
But others believe the comments represent a larger issue in NHL hockey.
"It's unfortunate, but you roll your eyes and say, 'Here we go again,'" says Ben Raby, studio host of the Capitals Radio Network at 1500 AM and occasional WTOP blogger.
"It's not the first time we've seen this in the NHL, it's not the first time we've seen this in the NHL playoffs," he says.
During the 2002 playoffs, then-goaltender for the Carolina Hurricanes Kevin Weekes, who is black, had a banana thrown at him from the stands in Montreal. More recently, Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds, also black, had a banana thrown at him during the preseason in London, Ontario.
Weekes responded to Simmonds' incident last September, and on Twitter to the comments about Ward:
"We have some people that still have their heads in the sand and some people that don't necessarily want to evolve and aren't necessarily all that comfortable with the fact that the game is evolving," he told the Associated Press last September. "I understand that firsthand — I'm the first black national broadcaster in NHL history, the first black broadcaster on 'Hockey Night in Canada.'"
"The reality is that there's still some people that aren't very comfortable with that. Sometimes I'll get examples of it on Twitter," he said.
Hear more of Weekes' perspective in the audio reports, above.
Raby points to an increasingly integrated culture in youth hockey, where he says coaches are trying to recruit more black players to offset bigotry.
"You never want this to happen, but it's better than the alternative: You don't want people standing idle when this kind of thing goes on," Raby says.
"(Racism) attracts people's attention because it happens so infrequently," he says of the NHL. "Unfortunately, I don't think there has been a whole lot of change."
Boston, "The Cradle of Liberty," has witnessed a history of racial tension, which came to a height in recent decades after the violent 1974 Boston Busing Race Riots, spurred on by court-ordered school desegregation. Boston Celtic great Bill Russell once called the city "a flea market of racism," where hometown baseball team the Red Sox became the last in the league to integrate.
However, Boston now is a city of mostly minority residents. And the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, is black.
Its hockey team also has a rich tradition of pioneering civil rights, after drafting Willie O'Ree, the first black man to play in the NHL, who became known as the "Jackie Robinson of ice hockey."
Only 101 players have ever been drafted by or played on an NHL team, according to BlackHockeyPlayers.webs.com. See more about the history of black players in the gallery at that site.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)