Joel Ward is retiring, but he’s not done with hockey
As he says his goodbyes to the game, Ward touches on its future, and how he might help continue to grow the game.
Joel Ward has a message for any younger hockey players coping with racism.
“Be proud of who you are. I’m not going to let somebody deter me from my goals and dreams. My dream was to play in the National Hockey League,” the son of Barbadian immigrants said in a conference call announcing his retirement this afternoon. “It’s tough, but you have support. For anybody who goes through any situations, any kids out there who are listening, I’m here to help if you ever need to chat.”
Ward has seen the highs and lows of the sport over his 11-year career with the Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks. Perhaps no moment encapsulated those highs and lows more than his Game 7 overtime goal that eliminated the Boston Bruins in the 2012 playoffs — and the subsequent racial backlash.
“I’ve gone through, personally, some racism throughout the game,” Ward acknowledged. “All we want to do is play. That’s exactly what I wanted to do as a kid was just to pick up a hockey stick, play the game.”
But there’s no doubt that there were more highs than lows in the 6-foot-1 forward’s career.
“I just wanted to play one hockey game,” said Ward, who retires after 809 regular season and postseason NHL games. “I got a chance to play with a lot of great hockey players, Ovi, Jumbo. I was around Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne, a lot of great guys in Nashville. It’s so surreal to me. To be teammates and friends with them, I never thought about that growing up.
“One of my first few games was against Mats Sundin in Toronto in my hometown. I was like, holy smokes.”
That was actually Ward’s fifth NHL contest, where he scored his first NHL point, an assist on a Kurtis Foster goal, in Air Canada Centre on December 26, 2006.
14 years later, Ward has settled in San Jose with his wife Kathleen and one-year-old son Robinson. Recently, he’s been involved with Hockey Is For Everyone and has spoken with the Sharks about joining the organization in some capacity.
Ward touched on what Hockey Is For Everyone means to him: “It’s representation. For me, growing up in Toronto, there weren’t too many blacks playing in the National Hockey League to look up to.
“I picked up a stick and fell in love with it. Why can’t the next kid? A lot of it is, for guys like myself, and other players, to show kids of minority backgrounds, people of color, that hockey is for everybody.
“We’ve been trying to focus on that, get more kids more involved and not to be scared. It’s not just about seeing the LeBron James all the time, hockey is a fantastic sport as well. It’s a game for everybody of color.”
The recent, ugly Akim Aliu and K’Andre Miller situations have actually galvanized Ward more than anything.
“It’s definitely been very disappointing and it’s also been a switch on to try to help,” Ward said. “Try to help others and the league to combat this a little bit better. It’s been something that I’ve been in talks with some people.”
So could an advisory role with the NHL also be in the cards for Ward? Perhaps, but the 39-year-old sounds like he wants be closer to the game, maybe behind the bench.
“Over the years, I’ve had such great teachers and coaches. I’ve learned so much over the years. It’ll be a shame if I kept all that information to myself,” Ward said. “I’ve been fortunate to play on some top lines and be on the bottom. I can relate to a lot of different guys.”
Speaking specifically about what he’s discussed with the San Jose organization, in terms of a job, Ward revealed, “I’d like to get on the ice at some point with them, if it can work out.”
No matter what Ward’s next step is, he has a story to tell the next generation of hockey players who don’t quite feel like they belong: “You just got to put your foot down. I think my love of the game just took over. I just want to share that.”