Despite the disappointments, Ward never quit his pursuit, even when it often appeared to be a futile one.
“He just loved his hockey,” Ward’s mother, Cecilia, said when asked why her son didn’t give up. “I don’t know how to explain it. He just loved the game. He was so just focused on the game.”
After another early playoff exit last spring, the Washington Capitals’ top priority was to add some grit to a skilled lineup that had mastered the regular season but repeatedly faltered in the playoffs.
One of the first players General Manager George McPhee signed was Ward, a hard-working, 30-year-old free agent who had played a starring role for a budget-conscious Nashville Predators team that pushed the Vancouver Canucks to six games in the Western Conference semifinals.
Ward already had the reputation for gnashing his teeth when the stakes were high. His seven goals and six assists in 12 playoff games for the Predators last spring clinched it.
“I’d rather have someone that gets 10-15 [goals] in the regular season but delivers in the playoffs than someone who gets 25 and doesn’t,” McPhee said after signing Ward.
Pinpointing the reason for Ward’s ability to rise up in the clutch isn’t as simple as mere statistics. When you consider his entire story — Ward’s hardscrabble upbringing in blue-collar Scarborough, Ontario, and the circuitous route he followed to the NHL — you start to understand where it might have originated.
In December 1994, Ward was playing in a game when he noticed a commotion in the crowd in the area where his parents usually sat at his home rink. His father Randall, an auto mechanic, had collapsed in the stands.
“He suffered from high blood pressure,” said Cecilia Ward, a registered nurse who emigrated from Barbados in the 1960s. “It was made worse by the excitement of the game. We were sitting together and I was talking to him and I don’t hear anything. He was staring at the ceiling and then he slipped down.”
Randall Ward died of a blood clot to the brain two days later.
“He always told people that I would make it,” Joel Ward said, forcing a smile. “It was always kind of odd to hear that from someone from Barbados, who never played a lick of hockey, tell people I would make it one day.”
On the day of his father’s memorial service, Ward returned to the ice for a game.
“Hockey was my escape,” he said.
Randall Ward’s death left Cecilia to raise three boys on her own. To make ends meet — and pay for Joel’s budding hockey career — she worked the night shift at one hospital and at another during the day. If Ward had a game at night, she would often pick him up and bring him with her to the hospital, where she would find him an empty room to stay in overnight.