Born in Canada to immigrant parents from Barbados, Joel Ward wasn't sure his dream of becoming a hockey player would ever come true. That was, until a certain someone familiar to NHL and NHL Network fans introduced Ward to the game. Ward grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, close to Kevin Weekes, a goalie in the NHL for many years and now an analyst for NHL Network. Through that relationship, Ward learned quickly that indeed a hockey career could be possible. The Washington Capitals forward talks about his mentor, as well as his upbringing, charitable work, decision to attend Canadian college and other subjects in the latest installment of Tapped In.
Kathryn Tappen: I don't usually ask on-ice related questions, but you've been on fire lately! What has been working for you offensively?
Joel Ward: My linemates have been great. I've gotten a couple of good bounces and rebounds that have been lying around. I happen to just put them in. We've had a handful of good games, have played pretty solid getting the pucks out of our own zone, and getting up the ice. I've been an opportunist, at the right place at the right time.
A roundabout route to a career in the NHL has defined Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward. (Photo: Getty Images)
KT: Take me back to your playing days in the Ontario Hockey League with the Owen Sound Platers. How much of an impact did your billet family have on your development as a person and a player?
JW: I was 17 years old, had moved away from home, was a black kid growing up in Toronto and had to move to a place that was a culture shock to me. My billet family, Wendy and Roger Minard, were unbelievable. They embraced me right away. I felt like a part of the family. Wendy was doing everything for me, from my laundry to cooking. I was spoiled! And since my father had passed away, Roger took on a father-like role. He taught me a lot of my firsts: playing cards, shooting pool, tying a tie. I was with them for four straight years, including one entire summer. I can't speak enough about them. Roger comes on the fathers' trips for Washington. I thought it was a cool way for him to hang out with the team since he's a big hockey guy. They were huge for me during those crucial high school years growing up and played a big role in my life.
KT: After completing your final year of eligibility in the OHL in 2000-01, you attended Red Wings training camp. How did that go for you?
JW: It was fun going to NHL camp. Detroit had some big names. The first year [Pavel] Datsyuk was coming into the League and the following year it was [Henrik] Zetterberg. It was unbelievable. Other guys included Brett Hull, Curtis Joseph, Chris Chelios. To see those guys on a day-to-day basis was pretty cool for me at the time. Obviously, things didn't work out the way I had hoped they would, so I ended up going to school in Prince Edward Island.
KT: Tell me about that, because you are one of the few players to play collegiate hockey in Canadian University Hockey, for the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers.
JW: There was a teammate of mine, Adam Campbell, at Owen Sound. While I was at camp with Detroit, he was talking to me about going to school. He was already at P.E.I. He was telling me to come out there if things didn't work out with Detroit. I talked to my family and figured the best option was to go to school, and why not go with someone I already knew? When I got to campus, the campus barn was a really old barn, and I wanted to go back home right away. I was just thinking, "This is definitely not my cup of tea!" [laughs] But Adam told me I was stuck and couldn't go anywhere. So I had to stay. But the guys on the team were unbelievable. I had never been on the East Coast, never even knew where P.E.I. was. I had a great four years, got my BA in Sociology, and the guys that I met became really good friends. Many of them are still close friends to this day. It was an experience, both on and off the ice, that I'll never ever forget.
KT: Did you have any plans after hockey on what you would use a Sociology degree for?
JW: I always wanted to teach. A few of my teammates at the time were looking at the education program. It seemed like something I wanted to do. But I decided to try pro hockey first, and it's worked out so far.
KT: That it has! You signed your first pro contract in 2005-06 with Minnesota's American Hockey League team in Houston. How did that make you feel?
JW: The fact that I didn't have to go back to class and write papers was thrilling! For me it was awesome.
KT: Both of your parents are immigrants from Barbados. What kind of cultural influences did they teach or embed in you?
JW: Kevin's [Weekes] family is the one that got our family to play hockey. His parents were from Barbados too. He was close to my older brothers in age and we lived in the same neighborhood. I always used to watch my older brothers and him play. Kevin was always the guy in the neighborhood who was the athlete and played hockey, played Triple A. He got my brothers involved. I was always the little brother chasing them around and fell in love with it. My parents sacrificed a lot. Having come from Barbados, they didn't know anything about hockey. But they fell in love with the game when they came over here, and obviously with the help of the Weekes family. We had lots of relatives from back in Barbados as well who started to learn the game. I still look up to Kevin, he's like a mentor to me. If I ever have any issues or questions, he's who I go to. He showed me the ropes. He's been huge in my life, and my family's life, and playing the game.
KT: I hear you attended the Kevin Weekes Skillz hockey camp. I'm sure you credit that for all the success you have on the ice today?
JW: [laughs] It's pretty funny, growing up I always thought Kevin was like 30 years older than me, just from looking up to him as a kid. His family showed my family how hockey works, with minor hockey and the ranks in Toronto. He introduced me to his camp and other places in and around Toronto to develop. Even when he was busy playing pro, I'd talk to his dad.
KT: You're actively involved in Big Brothers/Big Sisters and also the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone initiatives. Why is it important to you to be involved in these charities?
JW: When I was in Nashville I wanted to get involved in something to give back. My father passed away when I was young, and it was hard for my mother growing up supporting me and my brothers. I wanted a program where I could give back, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters was a place where I could help a child with a single-parent family. I ended up going through the interview process. Then I got my little brother, Malik Johnson. I still talk to him even though he lives in Nashville. I keep tabs on him, and he's doing well. It's a great bond. It's such a special program. You get attached to these kids; try to help them out as much as you can. It takes up some time, but it's rewarding to see them grow from day one to ultimately succeed in the classroom and in life in general. I hope more guys can get involved.
KT: A couple quick questions before I let you go. Your cat Leo made your bio in the Capitals guide book. He must be a pretty important cat!
JW: [laughs] Ha! Yeah, he lives with my mom in Toronto. He keeps her company during the hockey season when she's watching our games on the hockey package. He's the man of the house these days.
KT: Your favorite food is West Indian. Have you found a good spot in Washington?
JW: I'm a big fan. There are a lot of good spots in Scarborough, but I haven't found any in Washington. I'm really disappointed. Toronto has the best. Whenever I play in New York or Toronto, I try to get my fix in if I can.
KT: Finally, what is the significance to why you were No. 42?
JW: I wanted something that was inspirational to me. I chose it in honor of Jackie Robinson. I wear it with black pride.
KT: Well you're certainly in the right city to be wearing that number. Good luck to you the rest of the season and thanks for joining me.
JW: You're welcome, and have Kevin take you to some of those good West Indian spots in Scarborough!