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The responsibility of being the first NHL player to take a knee shouldn't fall on Joel Ward

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In a sport with so few nonwhite players, why are we expecting them to feel safe taking the lead in protesting?

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Ward has dealt with racism his entire hockey career.

“I had no clue what the words meant until my parents educated me about what was going on in my surroundings. I was just a kid who fell in love with the game and picked up a hockey stick. I didn’t really look at it as color,” Ward told Paul Gackle of Mercury news earlier today. “As I got older and looked across the locker rooms and dressings rooms, I realized I’m the only black kid in the whole arena.

“I’ve experienced racism as a kid, as an adult. I think I’ll always experience it.”

It makes sense, then, that Ward understands the meaning behind the protest started by Colin Kaepernick in the NFL last fall. Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter and refuse to salute to a country where black people are killed by the police regularly and without repercussion.

Joel Ward gets it because he’s lived it.

“I’ve dealt with it a lot,” Ward said. “I’ve had a few things that have happened to me that you could say are not the norm. I’ve been singled out at different events. I’ve been pulled over. I’ve dealt with racism right to my face.

“It’s just been part of life that you always have to deal with, so when people get into Kaepernick and some of these other guys, saying that they’re disrespecting the flag, it’s not about just that. It’s about creating awareness about what people, like myself, go through on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s going to the mall or whatever.”

It’s unfortunate that, as Ward pointed out, Kaepernick’s message got lost. When Donald Trump called out NFL players who protested during the anthem, he set off a chain reaction that saw a small movement grow into hundreds of players kneeling, linking arms, or otherwise refusing to participate in the national anthem during this past Sunday’s games. Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland A’s became the first MLB player to kneel during the anthem.

The protest that was once about police brutality has grown, but it’s not necessarily for the better. It seems clear that for some NFL players, this is about what they perceive as an attack on their league and their livelihoods.

Kaepernick starting kneeling before the 2016 election, before Donald Trump was president. But now his protest feels distinctly anti-Trump.

That’s how white NHL players are viewing it, too. Many have said some variation of “It’s disrespectful to veteran soldiers” when asked how they feel about the protests. To be fair, they also tend to follow it up with a vague support on the basis of free speech, but ultimately, white NHL players are having a hard time grasping what the protest is about exactly.

Even Ward’s captain, Joe Pavelski, doesn’t quite get it.

“Open discussion has to be taking place. You have to talk about it and you have to be aware of it. It’s the only way things improve is to talk about those tough situations,” the Sharks captain said.

“It’s tough for me to see someone (protesting) the flag and using that anthem — that’s tough to see, at times. But you understand and you respect their right to do it. You just hope that it’s done in a respectful manner and that everyone outside of that stage and that platform is working toward a solution.”

So it comes down to nonwhite players, and in this particular instance, to black players, to get Kaepernick’s point across. Among those showing support for #TakeAKnee, as it’s been coined, are the Tampa Bay Lightning’s J.T. Brown, the New York Islanders’ Josh Ho-Sang, and now, the Sharks’ Joel Ward.

Ward said he’s open to being the first player in the NHL to protest. “It’s definitely something I wouldn’t cross out. I’ve experienced a lot of racism myself in hockey and on a day-to-day occurrence. I haven’t really sat down to think about it too much yet, but I definitely wouldn’t say no to it.”

J.T. Brown told the Tampa Bay Times he wouldn’t rule out it out either. “I won’t say no, but right now, I’m focusing on our season.”

The end of Brown’s quote brings to light an important caveat to protesting in the NHL.

J.T. Brown has to “focus on the season,” because anything otherwise is a distraction, at best. This league isn’t free from acts of racism, despite claims that “Hockey Is For Everyone.” While there’s a larger culture within the game where all players are overtly discouraged from being considered distractions, the consequences for being seen as one fall significantly harder on nonwhite players.

The P.K. Subban trade last summer was widely regarded as an act of racism, as many of the complaints about Subban - too flashy, too attention-seeking - can also be attributed to the Sharks’ own Brent Burns, who has never faced that level of criticism or mistreatment. Josh Ho-Sang was left in the minors despite a wealth of talent because of “attitude problems.”

There are only 30 or so active black players in the NHL and as recently as last summer, they heard coaches saying that they would be benched if they didn’t stand during the anthem.

In a league where every potential misstep could be the thing that uproots their life or ends their career, why are we putting the responsibility of making that statement on the shoulders of our black players?

While black NHL players seem to understand the issue better than their white teammates, not all white players are missing the point. Blake Wheeler, Jacob Trouba, and Matt Hendricks of the Winnipeg Jets were vocal in their support of those protesting.

But none of these players have said they would take a knee themselves.

If these white players really got it, and they understand why their nonwhite teammates would feel this is important, shouldn’t they also see the kinds of pressure those players are under? Shouldn’t they use their position of relative safety from backlash to lead the way?

Haven’t nonwhite players dealt with enough already?

Should Joel Ward choose to make that step, he’ll have the support of both coach Pete DeBoer and General Manager Doug Wilson.

“I went to law school. I’m a big freedom of speech guy. Everyone has the right to message how they want to,” said DeBoer. According to Ward, Wilson agrees that the issue comes down to freedom of speech.

There are players on the Sharks who have been vocal about social issues. Chris Tierney was named an ambassador to the You Can Play project. Paul Martin runs a charity for mental health awareness. Even on non-social issues, Logan Couture raises money for concussion research, Marc-Edouard Vlasic won’t stop shading the NHL for not going to the Olympics, and they all participate in the Sharks Foundation regularly. This is a team that is full of empathy and they care about issues and the people those issues affect.

Is it too much too ask for them to care about their black teammates, too?