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Joel Ward remembers training at The Spa with Kris MacPhee and contemplating what career he would pursue.
After finishing his sociology degree at UPEI and playing hockey for the Panthers, maybe he’d go to teachers’ college or join the police force or become a firefighter.
“I just wanted to finish university,” Ward said. “My goal was to graduate university and to play a little hockey for a bit and see how far I could go.”
Ward can now look back on an 11-season NHL career that saw him play for four teams and make it to the Stanley Cup final.
Ward is a poster boy for university hockey in Canada. He made it to the NHL the unconventional way of going to U Sports after completing his major junior career.
He thinks more can do it, too; they just need to believe in their abilities and continue to work hard.
“If I can do it, hey, anybody can do it, and I’m telling you, that’s the truth.”
Ward played his last game April 7, 2018, versus the Minnesota Wild – the team he broke into the league with in February 2007.
He tried to land a job for the 2018-19 season, but one didn’t materialize. He put off retirement for a while, but as he and his wife, Kathleen, were preparing for their first child in 2019 it became obvious where Ward wanted to be.
“Once I went to my first doctor’s appointment and saw ultrasounds and pictures I kind of knew I was done,” he said. “When my boy (Robinson) turned one on April 16 … I knew right there and then I was done. That’s when I kind of felt really good about putting the piece out.”
Ward announced his retirement in The Players’ Tribune on April 27. He wanted to say his piece, but he never expected the public’s reaction.
“I just wanted everyone to just dream big, like I did,” he told The Guardian. “I wasn't anticipating all the coverage it got.”
The former UPEI Panther received 480 replies, 1,100 retweets and almost 6,000 likes on his verified Twitter account when he posted a link to the story. Numerous stories were published in the days following the announcement.
Ward got messages from friends, family members, former teammates, coaches and the slew of people that hockey players come across during their career.
MacPhee and Ward were teammates for four seasons in Charlottetown. He described Ward as a similar player at the NHL level to how he played in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference.
“A two-way player who could just dominate the corners, along the boards and in front of the net,” he said. “We knew we were playing with a special player, (but) not many guys who are playing in the AUS get that chance.”
His teammates knew he was close and hoped he’d get his shot.
Ward did and made the most of it with his teammates cheering him on every step along the way. A group of them visited him in Nashville, Washington and San Jose.
“It’s just been awesome to see how he went from just wanting to get a tryout with an American league team to becoming a full-time NHLer. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “We couldn't be happier for him.”
Ward, who has been away from the game for two seasons, didn’t hesitate when asked what he misses the most.
“The guys,” he said. “The everyday team camaraderie. The flights. The travelling together and having dinners and laughing. And then the on-ice battle together.”
He loved the competition – particularly the post-season, where Ward rose to the occasion numerous times.
“That’s the reason why you play – the playoffs and to win the Stanley Cup. I will definitely always miss that. That’s just the competitiveness in myself.”
The Wards are expecting their second son in August.
Joel loves being home with the family but said he could see himself getting involved in a different role in hockey at some point.
“I think I’d like to try to get into coaching,” he said, noting he has learned a lot from those he has played for, including Adam Oates, Barry Trotz, Peter DeBoer and Mike Kelly.
“I’d love to share that with others.”
Ward thinks back to his days at UPEI fondly. He wasn’t at the top of his class but earned his degree with the same traits that made him an NHLer.
“I battled and I worked hard and I got through,” he said, noting the great support from teammates, coaches and professors. “I knew if I could get through that, I was able to do anything.”
Ward went on to have a long professional career but hasn’t forgotten UPEI. He was back a few years ago during the summer to have his No. 22 honoured with a banner and returned a couple years later to see it raised back to the wall behind the Panthers’ bench during a game.
“(I’m) very thankful for the opportunity I had, and that’s where it all started for me was back on the Island,” he said.
He is still in contact with his Panther teammates, having regular Zoom sessions with guys like Darcy Harris, John Brioux, Jason Flick, Nathan Ramage, Adam Rivet and MacPhee to relive their times playing for UPEI.
“We came in together and we had a special bond,” Ward said. “(The memories) are very special to me and ones I hold close to my heart.”
A central theme in Ward’s article on The Players’ Tribune is 726 – the number of regular season games he played in the NHL.
He didn’t have to research the number, he knew. Many people, including teammates, would ask him along his journey.
“I didn't take anything for granted that’s for sure (during) my day in the league. I loved every minute of it.”
Here is some need-to-know information about Joel Ward:
Who – A former NHLer who studied and played hockey at UPEI, he was a six-foot-one, 225-pound right-winger.
Hometown – North York, Ont.
Personal – The 39-year-old Ward is married to Kathleen. They had a one-year-old son, Robinson, and another due in August. They live in San Jose, Calif.
The latest – Ward recently announced his retirement after playing in the NHL for 11 seasons with Minnesota, Nashville, Washington and San Jose.
Did you know? Ward played for Canada at the 2014 world championships, recording six goals and three assists in eight games.
GP G A Pts. PIM
Regular season 726 133 171 304 261
Playoffs 83 22 30 52 42
96 54 81 135 124
Joel Ward: “My passion just took over for me and helped me succeed. I wasn’t the fastest guy, I wasn’t the strongest guy, I wasn't the most skillful guy by any means, but I loved playing. I loved being out there. I loved trying to help my team win as best as possible.”
– Scoring first goal in the NHL on Oct. 10 at St. Louis.
– 2016 playoff run with the San Jose Sharks and “(being) a couple of games away of winning a Stanley Cup final”. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the series in six games.
– First hat trick on Nov. 1, 2013, at Philadelphia. “I never thought I’d get a chance to do that.”
– Playing in Toronto at the then Air Canada Centre for the first time on Dec. 26, 2006, during his first season in the league with the Minnesota Wild. He said sharing the ice with Maple Leafs star Mats Sundin was a surreal moment for a Toronto-area kid. Ward registered his first NHL point in the contest – an assist on Kurtis Foster’s goal 2:53 into the first period. The Leafs won 4-3.
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