From the time he began playing organized hockey at 6 years old until he made his NHL debut at 26, there were so many signs that Joel Ward should have abandoned his hope of someday earning a salary playing the game.
When Ward was 14 years old, his father suffered a stroke while watching him play and died days later. Four years after that, he was passed over by every NHL team in the draft. In the years that followed, he was cut by the Atlanta Thrashers, the Detroit Red Wings — twice — and the Minnesota Wild after free agent tryouts.
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.
When work prevented his mother from driving him to games, he would hitch rides with teammates. When he got tired of asking people for rides, he’d lug his bag onto the bus.
Ward also recalled the father of one of his teammates purchasing him two sticks after he broke his last one in a game.
“I always had wood sticks,” he said. “The father of my team captain at the time bought me a couple of aluminum sticks for a couple hundred bucks.”
That generosity — and his own doggedness — helped him ascend the youth hockey ladder in Toronto and get drafted in the 15th round of the Ontario Hockey League draft by Owen Sound in 1997. Beating out players with higher draft status only stoked Ward’s determination.
Two years later, Ward drove to Boston to attend the 1999 entry draft in the hopes of hearing his name called. After 272 players were selected, Ward and his family members left FleetCenter disappointed but far from discouraged.
“I just figured, ‘Hey, this is the way it’s always been this way for me,’ ” he said. “Nothing has been easy. It’s just another bump in the road.’ ”
Ward enrolled at the University of Prince Edward Island at the urging of a former junior teammate and played four seasons there, amassing 54 goals in 103 games.
After his junior season, he received a tryout with the Red Wings. But when he was cut, he decided to return to Prince Edward Island and finish his degree in sociology rather than join a ECHL team.
“No one made it easy on him,” said former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes, who played street hockey with Ward growing up. “That’s for sure.”
Ward got the break he needed in 2005, while playing in a roller hockey tournament in Naples, Fla. He had picked up the game as a teenager in Toronto, playing in the offseason to stay in shape and sharpen his skills.
That led to a tryout for the ECHL’s Florida Everblades. Two days later, he received an invitation to play for the American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros, Minnesota’s minor league affilate.
Ward made his NHL debut with the Wild in 2007, skating in 11 games. But the following season, he was one of the first players reassigned to the Aeros. In retrospect, he said, spending the entire 2007-08 campaign in the AHL represented a major turning point in his professional career.
“Kevin Constantine, my coach at the time, helped me work on my game,” Ward said. “He always said when you watch hockey, don’t just stare at the TV, watch your position, watch different guys, pay attention.”
Then this past spring came the three-week stretch that put Ward on the radar of general managers around the league. He scored three goals to help power the Predators past the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference quarterfinals. In the semis, he became a household name among hockey fans when he registered four goals and four assists in six-game defeat to the Canucks. At one point, he was tied for the playoff lead in goals.
“Things started going in and I was making plays,” Ward said. “Before you know it, everyone is in your face, asking questions. I was like, ‘I don’t have any secret formula.’ I was just working hard.”
Five weeks later, Ward signed a four-year contract with the Capitals worth $12 million. Washington, Nashville, San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles were among the teams he had put on his wish list. According to McPhee, Ward ended up attracting offers from 16 other clubs, forcing the Capitals to overpay by 15 percent to secure his signature.
So far, Ward has exceeded the Capitals’ expectations. His plus-minus rating of plus-7 is third best and his four goals (tied for fifth most) have him on pace for a career-best 21 points.
Bruce Boudreau acknowledged that he’s still getting to know Ward. But the coach said his backstory is consistent with the traits Ward has displayed in the dressing room and on the ice.
“You can see that he’s the kind of guy who would overcome things that were put in his way,” Boudreau said. “Who would have expected a kid who played university hockey in Canada and then the East Coast league to persevere and end up being here, in the NHL?”