Some players seemed to be pre-destined to be stars in the NHL, while others had to grind their way to the top. Right winger Joel Ward, who just announced his retirement after a decade in The Show, was in the latter group. But the intangibles that helped Ward become a mainstay on some very good teams in Nashville, Washington and San Jose are part of the reason his fellow players always knew how truly valuable he was to a team.
"He was clutch," said ex-NHLer Anthony Stewart. "Probably the smartest guy on the ice; he always knew where to go. He wasn't going to be the guy that scored 30 goals, so he knew he had to kill penalties and block shots. Every team needs a Joel Ward."
Undrafted after four years with the OHL's Owen Sound Attack, Ward seemed to be on a path to obscurity. The Toronto native headed out to the University of Prince Edward Island to play Canadian college hockey (now known as U Sports), steadily improving in four years with the Panthers and garnering national MVP honors in his final year.
After that, the pro opportunities began to percolate and Ward earned himself a spot in the AHL with the Houston Aeros. One season later, he made his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild.
Not long after, Ward became a regular in the NHL, first with Nashville, then with Washington, where he was best remembered for his Game 7 overtime goal against Boston in 2012. Ward never won a Stanley Cup, but he did go to the final with San Jose in 2016.
Needless to say, Ward's perseverance and origin story would be perfect fodder for any aspiring young hockey player, but he also lifted up his NHL peers along the way.
During the summer, Ward was part of a training group based in Toronto's east end that featured Stewart and his brother Chris, Wayne Simmonds and Devante Smith-Pelly, all under the watchful eye of superstar trainer Matt Nichol. While summer may seem like a time to chill for NHLers, job security is always on their minds and Ward knew how to handle things.
"With hockey, there's a lot of pressure and he could always lighten up a room," Stewart said. "We would train together in the summer and guys would be panicking. He'd say, 'relax, it's only June.' Then 'relax, it's only July.' Then training camp would be coming up and he'd say 'relax, the playoffs aren't for seven months.' "
Ward has also been a big supporter of Hockey is for Everyone, making his voice heard when the sport has been stained by racist attacks. He himself was subjected to vile remarks and death threats by Bruins fans after that famous overtime playoff goal.
With a young family now in tow, it seems as though Ward will take at least some time away from hockey in order to be a dad. But when the time is right, it's hard not to see him landing some sort of role, given the wealth of experience and smarts he could bring to an organization in some capacity.
"I could see him going to Sportsnet or Hockey Night in Canada and being the next great broadcaster, or I could see him as the GM of an NHL team: he's that well-respected," Stewart said. "He could do whatever he wanted to."