Joel’s Journey

 

(At first glance, Joel Ward is just another minor league hockey journeyman. But do some digging and you’ll be surprised at what you discover.)

The American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros call up 25-year-old forward Joel Ward (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) from the ECHL Florida Everblades and sign him to a professional tryout contract.

A simple line from the “transactions” page at the back of the sports section, as another faceless hockey player moves from one city to another.

But sometimes, it pays to read between the lines.

Five years ago, Joel Ward was wrapping up his junior hockey career with the OHL Owen Sound Attack. At the time, I was performing play-by-play duties for Sportsnet and called a few games that involved Ward. I became a big fan of his solid, two-way style and was disappointed when he went unselected in the NHL draft. As the years rolled by I lost track of Joel…..until, that is, I spotted his name on the “transactions” page. Still curious about a player I’d always admired, it was time to get in touch so he could fill in the blanks on a compelling journey.

With the NHL draft door slammed in his face, in 2001 Ward decided to play at the University of PEI in Charlottetown. In the classroom, Joel completed a Bachelor of Arts degree with an eye towards a teaching job down the road. On the ice, he capped his four years at UPEI by being named the 2004 MVP of the Atlantic Conference and earning a spot on the All-Canadian team.

The following autumn, Ward decided to turn pro with the ECHL Florida Everblades. Displaying the same consistent effort that made him a junior and university all-star, it wasn’t long before the AHL Houston Aeros offered him the chance to climb the hockey ladder.

Thanks to his strong face-off abilities and talent as a penalty-killer, Joel has already become a key part of the Aeros and is starting to attract attention from folks in Houston who aren’t used to watching a black athlete play hockey.

“At first, a lot of people assumed I played for the (NBA) Houston Rockets,” laughed Joel. “But hopefully, I can inspire more black kids to play hockey. The game is for everyone and I’d like to take advantage of my interest in teaching by getting involved with programs that encourage young people to take up the sport.”

Not too long ago, Ward was one of those young people. Growing up in Toronto, Joel lived right around the corner from Kevin Weekes, another talented black athlete who now plays goal for the New York Rangers. Joel and Kevin found themselves in the middle of countless street hockey games in their old neighbourhood as they grew up emulating black NHL stars such as Tony McKegney and Grant Fuhr.

One of Ward’s biggest inspirational figures, however, was his father, Randal. But unfortunately, Joel’s dad will never get the chance to see his son play pro hockey.

At age eleven, Joel was playing in a Pee Wee game at St. Michaels’ Arena in Toronto. As usual, Randal was in the stands when something happened that changed Joel’s life forever. In the middle of the game Randal suffered a stroke and as Joel watched helplessly from the ice, his dad was taken to hospital.

A few days later, Randal was dead.

“The only thing that got me through was the strength of my mom,” said Joel. “My dad’s death was obviously a pretty big thing in my life and the only way I overcame it was that I was lucky to grow up in a great family.”

That’s why Saturday, November 19th is such a huge day in Joel’s life. That’s when the Aeros hit town to take on the Toronto Marlies, and Joel’s family is pumped to watch him play a professional game in the city he grew up in.

“I’ve definitely got the date circled on my calendar,” admitted Ward. “Everyone has been emailing me about it and they’re really excited.”

If you happen to be at the game, keep your eyes on big number 28. During the anthems, he’ll be the one with his eyes closed and head bowed as he pays tribute to a father who never got the chance to watch his son wear a pro jersey.

Get close enough, and you might even see a certain set of initials on Ward’s game sticks.

“R.W.” is the way Joel remembers his dad.

The B.A. he earned at UPEI is how he honours his family.

And graduating from the AHL to the NHL one day?

Let’s just say that when it comes to Joel Ward, you should definitely keep a close eye on the “transactions” page.

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