Capitals winger Joel Ward is used to big crowds. He plies his trade in front of thousands of screaming fans every night in the NHL. But the prospect of giving a speech in front of a packed movie theater still left him nervous and sweating as he practiced his words on the drive to Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights on Wednesday evening. Ward was speaking before a special premiere of the new movie “42”, which chronicles the story of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who integrated the major leagues 66 years ago and became a harbinger of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Ward wears the jersey number 42 in honor of Robinson. He didn’t grow up in a baseball household in suburban Toronto. His father, Randall, a native of Barbados, was a hockey fan and loved the Chicago Blackhawks. Ward said his dad often referred to him as Chief – a moniker that took on greater meaning after Randall Ward’s passing in 1994 days after a stroke. Left to come up with his own interpretation of that nickname, Ward decided that his father wanted him to be “a difference maker” in his community.

After reading a biography on Robinson a few years ago when he still played for the Nashville Predators, Ward instantly saw a connection, separated by generations, between Robinson’s struggles, his own as a minority playing a predominately white sport and his father’s wish to see his son become a leader. Just last April 25, Ward’s triumphant game-winning overtime goal in Game 7 of a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Boston Bruins was marred by racist messages posted by fans on Twitter, the social networking web site.

In his speech Wednesday, Ward tried to touch on “just about how we’ve come a long way, but at the same time we’ve still got a ways to go” in racial attitudes in North America. The audience included teammates Eric Fehr, Wojtek Wolski, John Erskine and Steve Oleksy, among others.

“Watching the movie yesterday and seeing the number [emphasized] it was pretty cool,” Ward said. “I knew coming [to Washington in 2011] it was a new chapter for me and having the number actually it really means a lot to me. I don’t really go about telling everybody about. But I definitely do hold a lot of value to it.   A lot of people are pretty proud about it.”

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