Many other players – some with great potential – walked away from the game.
Not Joel Ward, though. Not even after hockey slapped him in the face.
Not after a four-year junior career with the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL. Undrafted, but undaunted, Ward spent the next four years playing Canadian university hockey at the University of Prince Edward Island.
Now there have been a few graduates of Canadian university hockey who have gone on to respectable professional careers – Steve Rucchin and Cory Cross spring to mind – but it is not accepted as the surest path to get to the NHL.
And yet when I think of players being determined in their quest to make it to the NHL, one name I think of is tough guy Shawn Thornton who toiled in the minors for nine long years before finally making it to the NHL. Thornton has since won the Stanley Cup twice.
The other player I think of is Joel Ward. He is the poster child for determination.
Even after turning pro with the Houston Aeros of the AHL, there was no guarantee Ward was headed for a long and prosperous NHL career, not even after he played 11 games (one assist) with the Minnesota Wild in his second of three seasons with Houston.
“I never thought about packing it in,” Ward said. “My ultimate goal was to get to the American League. I knew I was capable of doing it and I just wanted to give myself a shot. I figured making it to the American League from CIS hockey would be pretty cool. Once I got there I realized I could maybe hang there a bit.”
And yet here Ward is today, headed to the Stanley Cup final with the San Jose Sharks at the age of 35. Thanks to back-to-back two-goal games from Ward, the Sharks will play for the Cup for the first time in their 25-year history. It was Ward’s second goal of the game last Wednesday that punched the ticket to the final for the Sharks.
It wasn’t until Ward joined the Nashville Predators in 2008-09 that he established himself as a bona fide NHL player. In his rookie season Ward scored 17 goals and 35 points in 79 games. The year before he had 19 goals in the AHL so it was clear his offence in the best league in the world was picking up.
Ward enjoyed three solid years with the Predators before signing on as a free agent with the Washington Capitals for whom he was a solid two-way performer who had a career season in 2013-14 when he scored 24 goals and 49 points.
Following one more season with the Capitals, Ward signed last summer with the Sharks; a team that has been considered a potential Stanley Cup winner that has fallen short of expectations time and time again.
While the Capitals were considered a strong Stanley Cup favorite this season, they bombed out in the second round while the Sharks knocked off the Los Angeles Kings, the Predators and then, in seven games, the St. Louis Blues.
“Ward is just a big-time player,” said Sharks star center Joe Thornton. “Last year when I was watching the post-season he was a huge part of Washington’s team. I think they (missed) him this year.”
San Jose GM Doug Wilson has faced tough times, yet he resisted the temptation to deal away underachieving players that he believed would ultimately pay back his loyalty; players like Thornton and Patrick Marleau, each of whom served as captain of the Sharks before having the ‘C’ taken away.
After missing the playoffs last season, it was back to the chalkboard for Wilson who determined he needed a certain type of player to round out his talented roster than still included the productive, talented likes of Thornton and Marleau as well as Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tommy Wingels and Tomas Hertl, steady defender Marc-Edouard Vlasic as well as Brent Burns who, after a spell at forward, was back playing defence and establishing himself as one of the best and highest-scoring blue liners in the NHL.
Wilson acquired Ward, defenseman Paul Martin and goaltender Martin Jones, all of whom had significant experience playing in the Western Conference, along with veteran forward Dainius Zubrus and then, at the trade deadline, traded for veteran support players, center Nick Spaling and defenseman Roman Polak from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Wilson said Ward is a guy who has playoff experience and plays the game the way the Sharks want the game to be played. He added Ward’s reputation of being a great teammate and a good person entered into the equation. (It is worth noting that the Sharks had a meeting of all their employees on Friday – more than 100 people – and Ward, without being prompted, picked up the tab for lunch.)
When Ward returned to Washington this season he received a standing ovation. Capitals fans apparently know what they had…and what they lost. Their loss is San Jose’s gain and now one of hockey’s greatest stories has a chance to write an amazing final chapter.
“My family and friends are so excited and are blowing it up a bit,” Ward said. “I’m feeling pretty calm and I’m excited about the experience. I think when I get to Pittsburgh it’ll hit a little bit more.”