There are approximately 700 on-ice jobs in the NHL at any given time; it’s not exactly an easy gig to get.
So if you’re watching the Nashville Predators this season and see an unfamiliar face on the top line riding shotgun with Jason Arnott and J-P Dumont, don’t think of him as an overnight success.
For left winger Joel Ward, his NHL dream took a long and winding road.
Coming out of junior from Owen Sound in the Ontario League, Ward’s first destination was Long Beach, Calif., where he suited up in the 2001 West Coast League playoffs for the Ice Dogs.
“It was kind of a quick experience,” Ward noted of his eight-game sojourn.
The Toronto native then tried out for the Detroit Red Wings, but the team didn’t have a place for him. Ward ended up following some friends to the opposite side of the continent from Long Beach, enrolling in the University of Prince Edward Island and suiting up for the Panthers, where he was a three-time team MVP, plus a conference all-star and CIS All-Canadian in 2004-05. Most importantly, he was still playing hockey and at the same time earned a B.A. in sociology.
“That was what my approach was,” he said. “I was pretty happy to finish that degree off.”
But the dream of playing in the NHL was still alive and Ward got closer when the American League’s Houston Aeros came calling after he graduated. After a brief stint with the Minnesota Wild in ’06-07, followed by another year in Houston, Ward signed with the Predators this past summer and fate conspired to give him a really good slot in the lineup.
Thanks to Alexander Radulov’s fleeing back to Russia, the Preds were absent at least one top-six forward, if not a couple. When youth didn’t work, Ward took up the mantle and has played solidly with Arnott and Dumont, earning nine points in 29 games, while also logging a significant amount of time on the penalty-kill.
“I just try to create space for them,” Ward said of his role on the line. “Chase pucks and hopefully get pucks to them.”
And while Ward may not be a household name, he still made plenty of news in Nashville upon his arrival: the left winger is the first black player in the history of the Predators.
“Yeah, that was a headline at training camp,” he said. “It’s been pretty cool.”
For Ward, it’s a chance to be more than just another member of the team. And in a city that is one-quarter African-American, it gives the Preds a wonderful ambassador to make sure the fan base includes all demographics.
“It’s a big role and something I enjoy,” Ward said. “It’s good for the kids to see that it’s a game for everyone, not just one group of people.”
And while you can’t have ‘Nashville’ without ‘non-traditional’ attached, Ward has been very happy with his new home.
“I was pretty surprised,” he said. “It has all the big-city elements you need.”
Of course, the biggest element is an NHL franchise, and Ward is sure glad he finally got the chance to prove he belongs as a regular contributor on one.
The Straight Edge will return Jan. 9th.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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