Joel Ward wouldn't be in the NHL if not for his mom, who remains his biggest fan and constant advisor.
PITTSBURGH — The proud mother watches from her home outside Toronto, dressed in her teal Sharks jersey with “MAMA WARD” stitched on the back. She brings pictures of her son to the rehab hospital where she works as a registered nurse, handing them to patients when they learn what he does. She schedules part-time day shifts now, because NHL teams play late and she never misses out. She hasn’t worked at the hospital for several weeks lately, but for good reason: Joel Ward is playing in the Stanley Cup Final. “Tomorrow night, a dear friend of mine and I will go for supper, maybe go to a movie, because there’s no game,” Cecilia Ward says by phone. “But Thursday night you’re not getting me to go anywhere. I love the hockey so much. He knows that.”
The similarities between mother—a Barbadian immigrant who came to Canada in her teens familiar with sports like cricket and soccer but not her new nation’s pastime—and the son known worldwide for his postseason heroics are striking. “Same foods, same chocolate bars, same stuff,” Joel says. “Same look, same nose, same chill.” And now, even with the Sharks down three games to one against the Penguins and the possibility of elimination looming on Thursday at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center, there are the same reflections on the shared memories of all it took to get here.
“A lot of sacrifices it seems, over the years,” Joel says. “I think a lot of the headaches I gave her were through the hockey and traveling. She loved it just as much as I did, maybe even more. Being in this position here, I think it’s definitely shed some light more on my hockey days growing up. I think she feels it too, of all the hard work and effort that’s put into it over the years, starting at the age of six until now. You could see the light a little bit. It’s a cool feeling to bring it home after all’s said and done.”
Nothing is said and done, of course, not with the Sharks still kicking and the parade route in Pittsburgh still unannounced. Further to his reputation as a big-time performer, Ward was critical in San Jose’s lone victory thus far, slapping a deep drive past goaltender Matt Murray in Game 3 for his seventh goal of this postseason. Earlier that day, his cell phone buzzed with Cecilia’s customary advice, like she always sends before games. The gist of the messages remains constant:
“Stay in front of the net.”
“Focus. Concentrate. Pray.”
And, her all-time favorite, “Trick the goalie.”
Recounting these recently, Joel smiles. OK, mom, like after eight-plus NHL seasons and almost 600 games the advice needn’t be repeated. Whatever you say. But steady communication matters, particularly after Joel signed with the Sharks for three years and $9.825 million last summer and moved three time zones away. It matters because their bond stretches far beyond hockey, because it bridges the distance between Toronto and San Jose.
After all, where would he be without her?
Cecilia Ward wonders if the excitement at the rink triggered her husband’s high-blood pressure. It was Dec. 1994 and Joel was playing in a youth hockey game. Up in the stands, Randall Ward suffered a stroke and collapsed. Two days later, not far removed from Joel’s 14th birthday, a blood clot in his brain took Randall’s life. Once, Randall had told a friend that Joel would one day reach the NHL. Upon hearing this, the friend laughed. “It’s so sad to know his dad died and never see him get this far,” Cecilia says.
Before tragedy struck, Randall was instrumental in Joel’s athletic development, enrolling him in lessons and training him at home. “I remember him going out, tying a rope on the tire and making him pull it around the street, to strengthen his muscles and feet.” In 1993, Randall bought tickets for the NHL All-Star Game, so the family drove to Montreal and watched the festivities at the old Forum. “We’d play street hockey, my parents would take me to hockey schools, hockey practices, the Leafs were on TV, Rock’Em Sock’Em Don Cherry videos on tapes,” Joel says. “Always a big part of our family.”
Left alone to raise Joel and his two brothers, Cecilia made ends meet by picking up a part-time job in addition to her overnight nursing shift. “I was the only one hustling, working, taking him to the games,” she says. “Surviving, you know? It was very hard.” Many evenings, when Joel’s youth hockey games ended around 10 p.m., Cecilia would sneak him into the hospital, find an empty room where he could sleep, and clock in around 11. In the mornings, she would wake him up around 6:30 a.m., leave the hospital at 7, stop at McDonald’s for breakfast, and drive him to school, sweaty hockey gear still stinking in the trunk. “I thought it was the norm,” Joel says.” I got a TV, my own room, I was just chilling. She’d find me a little room. For me, I didn’t think much of it.”
The further San Jose has advanced, though, the greater perspective Ward says he has gained on Cecilia’s sacrifices. The money she saved to buy him equipment, never second-hand because she wanted him to have the best. The weekend soccer games, when she would park close enough to see the field and catch a quick nap in the driver’s seat. The rides they shared, jockeying over the radio station, or the nudging he would do beforehand to get them out the door. “I’d be barking at my mom to not put her makeup on,” Joel says. “We’re going to hockey, let’s hurry up, let’s go.”
Few participants in these Stanley Cup playoffs have endured more than Joel, who at 35 years old has advanced past the second round for the first time, and Cecilia has guided him at every turn. She sent him away to the OHL’s Owen Sound Platers, where he averaged almost a point per game during his fourth and final season. Together they attended the 1999 draft in Boston, where nine rounds passed without Joel’s name getting called. She urged him to finish his degree at the University of Prince Edward Island, regardless of how a tryout after his junior year with the Detroit Red Wings went (he was cut and returned to schook). She encouraged him as an ECHL team discovered him at a roller hockey tournament in Florida, then as he rose through Minnesota’s farm system, eventually settling with the the Nashville Predators for three years and signing his first one-way deal in 2009.
“Growing up as a kid, you take it for granted,” Joel says. “‘Hey mom, I need this, need that,’ not realizing the struggles. You can’t just have this and have that. She made a way to provide, with the clothes on our back and our food.”
To Cecilia, all the adversity informs the triumph, particularly as it concerns the family’s race and heritage. “I remember he was on a team, when he was 9 or 10, the coach wanted to pick a captain,” she says. “The coach wanted to make him captain, but the other parents didn’t want that. They didn’t want him to be a black kid, he’s not a Canadian, he’s not a white kid, he don’t know about hockey. But he was a very good player. The coach couldn’t make him, because the other parents got mad.” Another time, at a tournament in Detroit, an opponent told Joel that he didn’t belong on the ice, that he should play basketball instead. “At one point, a referee called him a monkey,” she says, not even mentioning the barrage of racist remarks that reached Joel on social media after his 2012 overtime goal against Boston in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
“But we said to him, don’t say anything, because they wanted a fight,” Cecilia says. “And he was a good player, so if they have a fight, an argument, they would put him off.” And this was anathema to Joel. Once, after taking a penalty, he came off the ice and told his mother, “I didn’t come to sit down and watch other guys play. I don’t like penalties I want to be on the ice.”
There are more amusing remarks, too, that remind Cecilia of how far he’s come. When the Sharks signed Ward on the third day of free agency last summer, someone on Twitter remarked something to the effect of, “We don’t want old men on our team.”
Remarks Cecilia, "I’m saying, I wonder what that same guy is saying today?”
Stanley Cup Final media day, less than two weeks ago at Consol Energy Center. For a solid half-hour, the throng surrounding Ward’s nameplate and podium kept asking the same abstract question that has tailed him since he scored against the Bruins: How, time and again, does Ward rise to the occasion at the biggest moments?
“Maybe it’s my background, being from the island of Barbados,” Ward told the crowd at one point. “My mother’s like that. I feel like I’m just like that all the time. Some people have asked if I’ve ever had a heartbeat. That’s just me, I think. I don't know what it is. I’ve always been like that, I think. I don't know what it is or whether it’s a skill. I do know I just try to stay in the moment and enjoy everything and try to be positive about everything. I don't know. I like to stay in that moment, regardless of what’s going on.”
Indeed, few in the league exhibit more serenity than Ward. While playing for the Washington Capitals, he was often spotted shooting hoops on the Wizards’ practice court or playing pitch-and-catch with an equipment manager before games. In San Jose, the team Twitter account has on several occasions posted video of Ward lip-synching “One Love” by Bob Marley, his eyes closed and head swaying. Who else, really, would so graciously answer questions from this reporter last spring about the relevance of his rump near the net. “I was born with a big ass, so I try to use it as best as I can,” he said at the time. “Thanks mom, I guess?”
See, everything comes back to Cecilia. During the second round of the playoffs, when she visited San Jose around Mother’s Day, she recalls walking through the concourse at SAP Center, customized jersey on her back. Every season, getting a new one is the first thing she asks of Joel. “One lady screamed, ‘AHH AHH MAMA WARD, CAN I GET A PICTURE?’” she says. “They say, ‘Are you really Joel Ward’s mom?’ Why would I put it on if I’m not his mom?”
Cecilia has not attended a Cup Final game yet, though, preferring to keep her distance because Joel’s girlfriend now lives with him in San Jose. At first, she wanted to wait until the Sharks returned home for Games 3 and 4, hoping she could be there when they clinched. Now, if the NHL’s best regular-season road team manages to deny Pittsburgh its celebration on Thursday, she plans to fly out for Game 6. This will happen, she says, and who’s to tell other otherwise? “You may not believe it, but they’re going to win that Cup,” he says. “They can win the other three games like crazy. I know for sure that Pittsburgh team is a very strong, fast team. But you never know the future.”
Further to this, before the Sharks flew back to Pittsburgh on Tuesday morning, Cecilia sent Joel another text. “Don’t give up,” she recalls it reading. “It’s not over until it’s over. Miracles do happen.”
The family is proof of that.