When Malik Johnson picked up the phone, he knew he needed to give a pep talk.
The San Jose Sharks were beaten badly the night before. It was the biggest stage the franchise – and Joel Ward – had ever played on, Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, and they were run out of the rink in the first period of what became a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The pressure was already on a San Jose team that has become synonymous with high-profile playoff disappointment.
"It's rough out there what he's doing," Johnson said of Ward. "But I tell him, 'You're awesome. You're a hard worker.' Because he would do the same thing for me."
Ward, 35, is one of the feel-good stories in the NHL. He grew up of modest means in Scarborough, Ont., the son of two immigrants from Barbados who learned about hockey from the neighbourhood kids, including former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes.
Ward's father, Randall, died tragically after suffering a stroke at one of his son's hockey games when Ward was only 14 years old. His mother, Cecilia, a nurse, raised three boys on her own from there. Joel was her youngest.
There are people all over North America rooting for Ward in this series, with the Sharks down 2-0 and facing long odds of a comeback. These fans are in places such as Owen Sound, Ont., Charlottetown and Houston, telling story after story about his generosity and humble spirit during one of the most unlikely routes to NHL stardom in the league.
One story they all talk about is about Malik.
Seven years ago, Ward played for the Nashville Predators, having finally made the NHL full time in his late 20s. He signed up to be a Big Brother in the community and was paired with Johnson, a troubled 12-year-old who grew up in a neighbourhood where drug deals and shootings were common.
He was expelled from school multiple times. He needed help.
"This was a big undertaking," Predators general manager David Poile recalled. "This wasn't show up and make an appearance."
Ward took Johnson to hockey games. He took him out for pizza. He worked with him on his homework, when he happened to be in school. He sat on the family's porch, a millionaire pro athlete, in that bad part of town, simply talking and being a friend.
Johnson became an adopted son of the team, even after Ward signed with the Washington Capitals and left town in 2011. Another staffer became his Big Brother. Rebecca King, the team's director of community relations, became his "second mother." Johnson landed a job with the Predators, filling water bottles and helping the training staff. He improved.
Two weeks ago, with the Sharks locked in a tight conference finals series with the St. Louis Blues, Johnson – now 19 – graduated from Lighthouse Christian School. Ward had paid his tuition to one of the top private schools in Tennessee for years, investing more than $10,000 so that his Little Brother could become the first member of his family to graduate from high school.
Now, Johnson is hoping to watch Ward reach his dream, too.
"He really thought this was worth it," Johnson said. "He believed in me."
No one who knows Ward is surprised at the story.
"That was Joel to a T," said Brian O'Leary, his coach in Owen Sound in the OHL. "You can't help but root for him, if you knew him. He's just a fantastic guy. He's not one bit different whether he's making $3-million a year or whatever."
"The thing with Joel is the impression and mark that he's left in his hockey journey everywhere he played," said Doug Currie, his coach with the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers, where Ward played four seasons and still returns every summer to see old friends. "It's very special."
Ward was never supposed to make it this far, playing big minutes on one of the top teams in the world for hockey's biggest prize. He was a 15th-round pick into the OHL who initially couldn't crack the roster. He played on the Junior B team in Owen Sound simply to be around.
Every year, however, he improved, winning over more fans and friends and everyone in the front office. He became one of the most popular kids at the local high school simply because – unlike many junior hockey players – he would talk to everyone. He became ingrained in the community, too.
"Everybody loved him," remembered former Owen Sound teammate Chris Minard, whose family billeted Ward when they played for the Platers.
Ward was invited to the Detroit Red Wings camp after his last junior season but didn't make their AHL affiliate. He went to UPEI to get his sociology degree because he promised his mother he would and dominated the university league. He had pro offers after his second and third seasons but wouldn't leave until he finished school.
Ward then spent three full years in the AHL before Nashville spotted him and signed him to a two-way deal that paid close to the league minimum. A few months shy of his 28th birthday, Ward was finally in the NHL full time, one of a few number of Canadian university players to make it.
Eight seasons later, he has played almost 600 games and become known for coming up with key goals in the playoffs. He has six already this year for the Sharks, continuing a terrific first season in San Jose after signing a three-year, $9.8-million (U.S) deal there last summer.
Typically a third-liner, Ward, a right winger, was bumped to the second unit – and was screening the goalie for San Jose's lone goal – when the Sharks needed a spark late in another one-goal loss in Game 2.
"It's my favourite story," said Ray McKelvie, the former Owen Sound GM who begged his scouts to take a chance on Ward deep in that 1997 OHL draft. "I'm just so happy for him. He never gave up. He just keeps working and working. You could write a book about [his career] and they wouldn't believe you."
"It's great to see he's done so well," added Minard, who admitted he is now cheering for the Sharks, despite the fact he played for the Penguins. "It's crazy."
Whether Ward's tale comes with a happy ending, with the odds now stacked against the Sharks, remains to be seen. But he has already ensured that much for someone else. Johnson will attend Nashville State Community College next fall to become an occupational therapist, with the goal of one day joining a pro hockey team to help players recover from injuries.
Whether Ward wins the Cup or not, Johnson knows what he wants to be.
"I want to be like him," Johnson said. "I never told him that, but I want to be just like him. Not a hockey player, but to have his mindset, his mentality of working hard. That's the kind of mindset I want to have in life."