First published Jan. 21, 2011
The father would be pleased, more so than he'd ever been before. The youngest son, who grew up on Toronto's east side playing street hockey with his two brothers, who dreamed of being in the NHL, has made it. At 30, Joel Ward is finally an established member of the Nashville Predators with the kind of hard-working, honest game you don't always notice.
All if took to get there was one of the most unconventional routes in all of hockey.
Coming out of the Ontario Hockey League, Ward was ignored by the NHL. Instead, he enrolled at the University of Prince Edward Island and graduated with a degree in sociology. Then he played professional roller hockey - in Florida. That got him noticed by an East Coast Hockey League team, which landed him an American Hockey League tryout. That got him his first pro contract five years after he finished his junior career. In turn, it led to an 11-game (barely used) stint with the Minnesota Wild, only for him to be let go.
And that's when the Predators - who start a Western swing against the Oilers, Flames and Canucks on Sunday in Edmonton - stepped up and Ward was where he always wanted to be, in the NHL on a full-time basis, trading elbows and body checks with the best in the game. Him, the son of a Barbados-born auto mechanic.
But that's not what the father would be most proud of.
Had Randall Ward not suffered a stroke while watching one of Joel's bantam hockey games, had he not died days later leaving a wife to tend for three teenage boys, the father would have loved this: Joel Ward isn't just a third-year NHLer, he's trying to be more, do more. He's helping others the way others helped him. He's returning favours and become a Big Brother. Twice a week he spends time with a Nashville 13-year-old named Malik. Sometimes they go to Predators practices and games and Malik chides his new friends for how they played the night before.
"He's always telling me what we should have done," Ward said with an easy laugh. "I tell him if his grades are up to par he can come and hang out at the rink with the guys. It's been good for me, too."
Ward speaks softly but is quick to tell of those who aided him. His journey to the NHL was wildly circuitous yet highlighted by so many acts of kindness Ward has made it his calling to stay in touch with his benefactors and friends.
"It's really a special story," former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes said of the neighbourhood kid he hung around with and mentored. "It's a testament to Joel and not making excuses. We were last together during the 2010 Winter Olympic break. Even then he was extremely thankful and appreciative of his situation. That's the kind of guy he is."
When you talk to people who know Ward, the same words - humble and grateful - are constantly repeated. They're not words usually associated with professional athletes but then Ward is a product of his upbringing.
After his father's death, a then-14-year-old Joel found solace in hockey and a generosity he hadn't expected. The parents of his minor-hockey teammates took him under their wing. They'd buy him hockey sticks when he needed them, give him rides to practices and from games because his mother, Cecilia, a registered nurse, worked two jobs to support her brood. Ward appreciated the assistance and marvelled at his mother's commitment. He took mental notes.
In 1997, less than three years after his father's death, Ward followed in Weekes's footsteps and tried out for the OHL's Owen Sound Attack. Billeted in the home of Rodger Minard, Ward wasn't sure he'd made the right decision. He felt overwhelmed and homesick. Minard told him to stick it out and at least try. Within months, Ward was on his way to eventually replacing Dan Snyder as team captain. Ward spent four years with the Minard family and it was Minard who guided him from adolescence to manhood, teaching him how to drive a stick shift and tie a tie. Guy stuff.
In Ward's first season with the Predators, when the players were asked to bring their fathers along on a road trip in 2008, Ward thought of Randall and invited Minard.
"He said, 'I want you to come. You deserve it,' " said Minard, who still talks to Ward on a weekly basis. "He calls me his white dad. I call him my black son. We joke about it."
There are other connections that have run through Ward's life. Guys from his childhood, roller-hockey buddies from Long Island. All of them have never been forgotten by the man who believes in repaying compassion with kindness.
"A lot of different parents helped me along the way. I'd like to thank everyone who did that," he said. "It keeps you grounded. I don't take anything for granted. I can't."
Ward has been a solid fit with the Predators (26-15-6), who are on a six-game trip. In his first season, 2008-09, he managed a surprising 17 goals. In his second, he scored 13. At 6 foot 1, 218 pounds, he has given Nashville heart and tenacity, a relentless work ethic with the occasional offensive surge for good measure. Asked what it was that caught the Predators interest, general manager David Poile replied it was how Ward kept improving at every level he played, something few other NHL teams had bothered to notice.
"He was a player with good size who used his body and he gets points," Poile said. "The key is trying to identify players for specific roles. Then you put them in situations where they can be successful."
"I give the Predators a lot of credit," extolled Weekes, now a commentator with Hockey Night in Canada. "They value character and do their homework. They gave Joel an opportunity and he made the most of it."
He's doing the same off the ice when it comes to those who could use a guiding hand. And that speaks to Ward's character more than any goal or penalty kill. What's important, he insisted, is to help kids make "good choices" so they can have faith in themselves. After all, if it worked for the young teenager growing up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough , it can work for 13-year-old Malik in Nashville.
"We go over his homework together," Ward said of his Little Brother. "It puts it all in perspective. I get to see the smile on his face."