The way Joel Ward responded to the racist tweets that would have staggered a lesser man was beautiful.
A hero for less than an hour, Ward, the Washington Capital who on Wednesday defeated the Boston Bruins with his Game 7 goal in overtime, was shown the tweets by a teammate. The messages revealed just how heroes are thought of when (1) you eliminate a high-profile team and (2) you're black.
Yes, hockey's racial makeup had a little something to do with the "That n----- deserves to hang"-laced tweets sent out following the Capitals' victory, as did the fact that the "crime" Ward committed was against a city with such a racially polarized history as Boston's. As bad as this sounds, that comes with the territory.
Which makes Ward's "I'm definitely the one black guy in a room with 20 white guys. ... I don't let it bother me at all" reaction such a beautiful thing. As was the fact that the tweets were meaningless to him. But sometimes things happen in sports that are bigger than one person and act as a refection of how society (large or small) sees someone.
In Ward's case: a black person being a difference-maker in the Stanley Cup playoffs. A rarity of all rarities.
See, the tweets aren't the issue -- those things are going to happen. They are a part of sports; they are a part of society. And they are a part of how society works when fans feel the need to -- and have the unfiltered resources, outlets and tools (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, Skype, blogs, etc.) to -- react to incidents that hit them in places they are rarely hit ... by someone they are not used to being hit by.
Tiger Woods hit society. Venus and Serena Williams hit society. Tim Tebow hit society. Jeremy Lin hit society.
Joel Ward, welcome to the world.
His welcome is a reminder of how we (sports fans, media, athletes, execs, etc.) can never get too comfortable with the belief that sports has a different set of rules when it comes to race than the rest of society. Maybe on the field it does, but off the field, there will always be a reminder of the roles race and racism play in society's relationship with sports.
Should we be upset by those reminders? No. Because, somehow, sports always finds a way to rise above them. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis (who I'm sure caught some of society's race-driven venom when he OK'd the firing of Michael Jordan from the Wizards a few years ago) did the right thing by publicly condemning the tweets and those who posted them.
And, inside of the sport, hockey players as a whole should show the same kind of solidarity against this that the Miami Heat showed against the killing of Trayvon Martin. At the least, that's necessary because historically that's what sports does and what athletes do. Their reaction puts situations in proper perspective and people in proper places, allows us to move on and get past the pain.
That's the power they got.
Ward says this is the first time he's gone through an experience like this. That alone says a lot about hockey. But at some point, reality is always going to present itself. And in his case, it did once he won that game and became news.
In sports, as often in life, there's always going to be some reminder, even if you happen to be the president of the United States and the New York Post allows a cartoon to run depicting you as a monkey being shot by the police.
Unfortunately for hockey, this past fall it was a banana tossed onto the ice at the Philadelphia Flyers' preseason game in London, Ontario, and this week it was the tweets directed at Joel Ward.
Tweets masked as feelings that weren't about him as much as they were about the society we live in.