MINSK, Belarus – Joel Ward knows who he is and who he isn’t.
“I’m not going to go out there and be Ovi,” he said. “I know what I’m doing. It’s not complex.”
It’s not complex: Ward is just Team Canada’s leading scorer through three games at the world hockey championship. With three goals he’s actually tied for the tournament lead and has the same amount as Russian star and Washington Capitals teammate Alex Ovechkin.
Ward doesn’t have Ovechkin’s release or his accuracy, but the 33-year-old is no slouch, either. His 2013-14 NHL season included a career-high 24 goals, which was just the ticket to get him his first-ever international experience for Canada.
Brad Pascall of Hockey Canada said assistant general manager Ron Hextall watched Ward play this past season and the group deciding on this team figured he’d be a nice fit after the strong season he had. It was good for Ward to get noticed but even better for him to find some more self-appreciation of his offensive game.
“I’ve always believed in my abilities and never told myself I couldn’t,” the Toronto native said Tuesday. “My first year in Nashville I had 17 and I had some power-play time there, so I knew I could be a 20-goal scorer in the National Hockey League. It was just finding that spot and the right atmosphere and environment. This year I kind of got my spirits back up, my confidence back up to do so.”
Ward called it a season of “rejuvenation,” crediting Capitals coach Adam Oates for changing the curve and length of his stick blade and teaching him more about how to play in front of the net.
The reward was 24 goals and 25 assists, and those 49 points were third on Washington behind only Ovechkin and Swedish Olympian Nicklas Backstrom. Ward was never ever close to being considered for the star-studded Sochi team, but when he got the call to represent Canada at the world championships, he was thrilled just to have the chance.
“When I first got the call, I said this was like my Olympics,” he said. “First time to ever put a Canada jersey on. I grew up as a kid watching international hockey my whole life. When I got the call I was pretty excited to just be part of it. I’m trying to make the most of it.”
So far, so good.
Ward scored twice against Slovakia and then once against the Czech Republic. His three goals and four points lead Canada, which is 2-0-1 going into Thursday’s game against Denmark.
“He’s really come along as a player, and even in this tournament, too,” Capitals and Team Canada teammate Troy Brouwer said. “He’s very opportunistic.”
What coach Dave Tippett likes about the six-foot-one, 221-pound right-winger is that he scores the kind of goals that are necessary in international play.
“He scores hard goals—hard goals in front of the net, good quick shots,” Tippett said. “He’s a hard player. Everybody thinks this is the big ice and it’s all flow and away from (the net). You look where our goals are being scored right now: A lot of them are right in front of the net. He’s a player that can get in there and muck around a little bit. … Go hard to the net and be willing to get into a battle to score. That’s what he does.”
Ward’s first goal of the tournament was a perfect tip of a point shot by Jason Garrison. His two others were sharp shots that Washington linemate Jason Chimera didn’t think many goaltenders in the world could stop.
But it’s not necessarily his shot but how he gets those opportunities that makes Ward fit for the big ice surface. He’s admittedly not the swiftest guy but takes pride in creating space and not making mistakes.
“I just try to play good, two-way hockey, and if I get a chance on the offensive side, try to make plays for my linemates,” Ward said. “Just keeping it simple is something key for me and try not to be no hero and be something I’m not. I just want to get pucks down deep and puck possession is very key. Fortunate to get a couple good bounces and playing with some good linemates.”
Ward is likely to continue playing on Canada’s fourth line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Sean Monahan moving forward, but he could get some better scoring chances on the power play. Even though only six of his 24 goals this past season came in that role, getting that extra ice time is why he thinks he’s a better scorer than he was even two years ago when he had a 40-game drought.
“You get more opportunity to play, right? So the more you play, the more opportunity you get,” he said. “If you can kind of get that opportunity and capitalize a bit, then you get more positive results, obviously, and you get more ice time and you get rewarded.”
Being at the world championships is Ward’s reward for such a strong season in Washington. It’s also his first trip to Europe.
“I’m usually just a beach guy,” Ward said, smiling. “I like to sit in the sand a little bit and have a pina colada, so this is kind of a new experience, new territory for me. Thank God I’m here, and I’m thankful for being here and getting an opportunity to do this.”
Along the way, he’s giving Canada the opportunity to win games and move past an opening shootout loss to France. Count at least Brouwer and Chimera among those not surprised and also pumped to see Ward playing and producing like this.
“It couldn’t happen to a better person,” Chimera said. “He’s a great human being and everyone likes him. When he has success, the team has success, too, because the team just feeds off that kind of guy.”
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