Joel Ward says NHL should discuss retiring Willie O'Ree's No. 22

PITTSBURGH -- San Jose Sharks' Joel Ward, who wears No. 42 in honor of baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, says he believes there should be a discussion to retire NHL pioneer Willie O'Ree's No. 22.

O'Ree, now 80, became the first black player in the NHL when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958. He played only two games that season, and another 43 during the 1960-61 season. He has become an ambassador for the game and is highly regarded in the world of hockey.

"That's something to definitely talk about for sure. It would be great if they did," Ward said of retiring O'Ree's number. "Obviously that's something that would be a great discussion about. With the amount of respect Willie has around the league, it would definitely be something special if that did come up."

On April 15, 1997, Major League Baseball retired Robinson's No. 42 and only those players still wearing it were grandfathered in. Those players included Boston's Mo Vaughn and the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who was the last to wear the number before he retired in 2013. The NHL could do something similar with O'Ree's No. 22.

Ward wore No. 29 when he played for the Nashville Predators, but when he signed as a free agent with the Washington Capitals, he wanted to pick a number that was meaningful. At the time, he had just finished reading a Jackie Robinson biography.

"I decided to pay tribute and I saw the No. 42 was available," Ward said. "When I think about what Jackie Robinson means, not just on the baseball aspect, but what he went through, and I always question myself whether would I ever be strong enough to go through something like that, and the fact that he excelled hitting over .300 and knowing that he could be shot at any minute, every time he stepped up to the plate he just seemed to tune that out in some miraculously way, so for somebody to pave the way like that and open doors for guys like myself is unbelievable."

At one point during his tenure with the Capitals, Ward threw out the ceremonial first pitch on "Jackie Robinson Day" at Nationals Stadium in D.C. He thought it was an incredible gesture that all MLB players wear No. 42 on that day annually.

O'Ree, who is an integral part of growing the game of hockey and working closely with the NHL, deserves a similar honor, according to Ward.

"I definitely think Willie should be recognized for sure," Ward said. "The league obviously does that with a task force, but I do think that Willie should definitely be a big part of the league for sure for what he did. It's a no-brainer. Without Willie, it would be tough for me to be sitting here today. I definitely think Willie should be a big part of this.:

Ward and his teammates are preparing to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016 Stanley Cup finals, which begin Monday at 8 p.m. ET at Consol Energy Center.