Nearly eight years after making his NHL debut as a 26-year-old with the Minnesota Wild in 2006, Joel Ward stood in front of his dressing room stall in Arlington Thursday and reflected on the uncommon path he took to a successful hockey career.
That road less traveled is why the Washington chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association has nominated Ward for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey”. Check out the full list of nominees here.
Ward, 33, is in the midst of a career year offensively. He’s recorded 22 goals, 43 points and became the eighth oldest-player to reach the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career when he scored against his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs on March 16.
It was back in Toronto where Ward’s journey began and was shaped both by the death of his father, Randall, who passed away because of a blood clot in his brain when Ward was 14 years old, and his mother Cecilia’s hard work to raise three sons on her own.
“My dad always believed in me, before even I did. As a kid I was just going through the motions of playing hockey. I loved the game, obviously, but he instilled in me the will and the belief,” Ward said. “I knew I could make a push at it and maybe I could do this, make a living. My mother’s a hard working lady as well and since my father passed she’s taken on that role. We’ve been through a lot of obstacles, sure like everybody else has. It’s about believing in yourself and in your dreams.”
After going undrafted in 1999, Ward enrolled at the University of Prince Edward Island and went on to graduate with a degree in Sociology. In the years that followed he was cut four different times by three NHL teams, played 209 AHL games over three seasons with the Houston Aeros and despite making his debut in 2006 it wasn’t until two years later, during the 2008-09 season, that Ward became an NHL regular with the Nashville Predators.
After three seasons with the Predators as a solid two-way forward and a breakout performance with seven goals and 13 points in 12 playoff games in 2011, Ward landed in Washington as an unrestricted free agent, signing a four-year, $12 million contract.
Even as he’s risen in prominence as a hockey player, Ward continually makes time to serve his community. He worked with the Big Brother Big Sisters organization in Nashville and remains close with his “little brother,” Malik Johnson. Since arriving in Washington, Ward has been a regular visitor to the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, which works to give inner-city kids the opportunity to play hockey because he knows the significance that can have in someone’s life.
“I was one of those kids too,” Ward said. “To see kids look up to you as a role model is a rewarding feeling because I’ve been there and that’s what encouraged me to get in the game even more.”