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The Official Site of the Nashville Predators Right wing trio adds to the NHL's expanding diversity

by Staff Writer / Nashville Predators
Three right wings from Toronto, two of them teenage friends, are making an impact with NHL teams and beyond this season. On the ice, they have earned their share of shifts. Plus, as black players, they are adding diversity to the NHL, boosting the number of minority players in the League to 31. Additionally, 17 minority players who have appeared on NHL rosters at one time currently are playing in the American Hockey League or ECHL.

OHL scholarship program aided Ward

Nashville Predators forward Joel Ward took an unusual route to the National Hockey League. After playing four Ontario Hockey League seasons with Owen Sound, he attended the University of Prince Edward Island, where he was team rookie of the year and then a three-time team MVP, before again pursuing his goal of being a professional hockey player.

Ward earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, grew stronger and smarter, and made his way to the NHL after 2 1/2 seasons with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League. Ward could have played in the ECHL when he finished his junior career, but he felt that the college route offered more options.

In November, the late Ed Chynoweth was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Chynoweth was the former president of the Western Hockey League and also the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization of three top Canadian junior leagues -- and one of his greatest accomplishments was instituting a college scholarship program for major-junior players.

Ward and many others would not have been able to attend college without the scholarship money. There are 164 OHL graduates getting scholarship money to attend Canadian colleges, and 185 OHL alums are playing Canadian Interuniversity Sport hockey, said Joe Birch, OHL director of recruitment and education. The OHL will distribute more than $800,000 this year in scholarship money.

It's Birch's job to alert Ontario parents to the scholarship money available to those players who wish to go to college.

"I give 40-50 minor-midget seminars every year, and I share Joel's story almost every time," Birch said. "We are very proud of him, just as Joel is proud of himself. You won't meet a better person and he has lived out everything we talk about in our league.

"We really believe that the OHL offers the best opportunity for a player to develop for professional hockey. When a player leaves our league, he has the opportunity to finish his education while continuing to develop as a hockey player. The quality of play in Canadian college hockey is excellent.

"Joel Ward is an example of someone who had professional opportunities after junior, but instead worked his way toward a degree, paid for by the scholarship program."

Ray McKelvie is the former owner of the Owen Sound Attack, and he continues as the club's director of business after selling the team. McKelvie recalls Ward as a midget player.

"I saw him two or three times when he was with the Don Mills Midgets and I liked him," McKelvie said. "We took him in the 14th round of the OHL draft, but I started bringing up his name in earlier rounds and the scouts kept saying he'd still be there later -- and he was.

"He was the best team player you'd ever want. He worked hard every shift. He didn't get drafted by the NHL and he had a chance to go to Prince Edward Island. He was convinced then that when he got through college he could still play in the NHL and he was right."

Ward's work ethic and upbeat personality were a big hit in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

"Joel had an invite to the Detroit Red Wings training camp and I was looking for hockey players well into September," recalled the Hon. Douglas W. Currie, Ward's coach at UPEI and now a member of the provincial parliament. "I contacted him and he had a scholarship as part of his time with Owen Sound. He was in Charlottetown the next day and spent four years here. He was a good student and extremely involved in the community, very well liked and popular.

"He had professional aspirations but he settled in here and made the best of his academic career. In his senior year, he was by far the best player in the league and the MVP."

"I went the university route, but I still had the dream," Ward said. "I didn't want to go straight to the ECHL. I believed in myself and took a longer road, knowing that someday, somehow, I'd get a chance to play in the NHL. I always wanted to go to college and I'm very happy with my decision. I graduated with a B.A. in sociology and I'm very proud of that.

"I didn't have a whole lot of money, so being able to go to college was definitely a positive thing for me and my family and something I'll remember my whole life. The degree will be with me forever. Education is important because you don't know how long you can play this game."

-- John McGourty

The players who hail from Toronto -- the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Simmonds, the Colorado Avalanche's Chris Stewart and the Nashville Predators' Joel Ward -- are enjoying their first full seasons in the NHL.

Ward played 11 games with the Minnesota Wild last season before signing as a free agent with Nashville during the summer. Ward technically is not a rookie because he is 28 years old, two years older than the limit to be eligible for the Calder Memorial Trophy that goes to the NHL rookie of the year.

In a good-natured way, Ward, who made the nightly highlight reel with his sixth goal this season Jan. 28 in the Predators' 5-3 victory at Vancouver, indicated he doesn't like that rule.

"I still have to do the rookie stuff and duties around here," he said. 

Stewart, the younger brother of Florida Panthers forward Anthony Stewart, and Simmonds, both rookies, grew up together in the Scarborough and Port Union sections of Toronto and played in the same youth-hockey organization.

All three have interesting histories and one thing in common -- they all believed they had NHL talent even if, in some cases, others didn't.

Simmonds' determination is off the charts. He played only two years of junior hockey and jumped straight to the NHL.

Last November, Glenn Anderson said it was his fear of losing that made him such a clutch performer and a Hockey Hall of Famer. For Simmonds, it was a loathing of minor-league hockey that motivated him to keep after his NHL dream.

"My parents, Wanda and Cyril, are honest, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth type people who instilled a strong work ethic in me while I was growing up," Simmonds said. "I understood early that I would have to work for everything, twice as hard as the next guy. They're still on my back about how I have to work hard.

"After finishing my second year of juniors at (OHL) Sault Ste. Marie last spring, I came here to Los Angeles to work out and I came to camp with the right mindset. There was no way I was going down to the AHL. I proved myself in preseason games and I've stuck with the team all year. So far, it's going well."

Simmonds' childhood friendship with Stewart proved to be a career-builder, too.

"Chris played for the North York Junior Canadiens and I played for them a year later after Chris told the coach, Phil David, about me," said Simmonds. "Then I played Junior A in Brockville, had a good year with 43 points in 49 games, and the OHL Owen Sound Attack drafted me, two years after my original draft year.

"I had planned to go to college so I didn't try to play major junior at first, but then I flip-flopped because I thought it would be a quicker way to the NHL. I also found out I wasn't that interested in going to school anymore."

Simmonds identified his greatest weakness and attacked it last summer. He's 6-foot-2, but just 181 pounds, and has had trouble adding weight.

"At the beginning of summer I was 173 pounds and I added 10 pounds," he said. "I'm sticking right around there halfway through the season. I'm not the type that bulks up right away, but I'm looking to get to 195 to 200 pounds. Apparently my metabolism is working against me."

Nonetheless, Simmonds is a fluid skater with great stamina who has enjoyed chemistry with big center Michal Handzus.

"He teaches me a lot, especially defensive play and what to do without the puck," Simmonds said of Handzus. "We like to take advantage of his size and work down low. It's hard to get the puck away from him. He's always ready to go, he doesn't ever get down, keeps an even keel and whatever advice he has for me, I take it and build on it."

For his part, Stewart had no issues bulking up. He had quit hockey to play football and trained enough to reach 260 pounds. But after his brother talked him back into hockey, Chris lost weight and cut a pretty straight path to the NHL, starring for the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs and becoming the Avalanche's first pick (No. 18) in the 2006 Entry Draft. He played a full season for the AHL Lake Erie Monsters and has split this season between Lake Erie and Denver, posting 6 goals and 5 assists in 23 NHL games.

The Stewart family struggled at times, and both Chris and Anthony lived with family friends, the Ziemendorfs.

"That helped my family get back on its feet," Stewart told when he was drafted. "... We had chores to do and school work. It was strict, but I look back and I'm thankful for that."

Anthony was captain of the Frontenacs and convinced his coach to get Chris, and the two played together for a season. Chris had 18 goals and 30 points his first season, 37 goals and 87 points his second, and 36 goals and 82 points in his third.

Stewart has been playing quite well lately. He has 3 goals and 6 points in his last six games while playing on a line centered by fellow rookie T.J. Hensick and Marek Svatos. That line has accounted for 11 points in the last four games. He also has five fighting majors this season and in a recent game against the Kings had a "Gordie Howe hat trick" -- a goal, an assist and a fight.

Ward appears to be in a perfect situation playing for coach Barry Trotz. Both men followed an unusual route, going through Canadian college hockey to get to the NHL. They also have similar compact builds. Trotz played Canadian juniors, then came up through the Manitoba minor-hockey coaching ranks and later coached the University of Manitoba. He spent five years coaching in the AHL, winning the Calder Cup with Portland in 1994, when he was named coach of the year. He has the second-longest tenure among current NHL coaches.

Ward played four years with Owen Sound and then went to the University of Prince Edward Island for four years. He then spent three seasons with the Houston Aeros, getting a brief promotion last season to the Wild.

"I went the university route but I still had the dream," Ward said. "I didn't want to go straight to the ECHL. I believed in myself and took a longer road, knowing that someday, somehow, I'd get a chance to play in the NHL. I always wanted to go to college and I'm very happy with my decision. I graduated with a B.A. in sociology and I'm very proud of that."

Trotz has used Ward in almost every situation -- checking line, scoring line, penalty killing and power play. He has 6 goals, 14 points and 23 penalty minutes in 44 games.

"Coach is easy to talk to and great to me. I can always go talk to him," Ward said. "He just wants me to pay attention to details, work hard and execute. I stick to the game plan and pick up any pointers he gives me."

Ward ranks fifth among NHL forwards with 42 blocked shots. It's a skill that generates respect among teammates, especially goalies.

"Kevin Constantine, my coach last year in Houston, taught me the technique," Ward said. "As a defensive player and penalty killer, I have to block a few shots. I practiced it quite a bit last year and implemented it into my game. Any time you can get in the way of the puck and block one for the team, it's a positive thing."

Ward, Simmonds and Stewart are the latest additions to the NHL's growing minority population. Of the 48 current or recent NHL minority players, 29 are black, seven aboriginal, seven Asian, three Hispanic, one Inuit and one South Asian. Thirty-eight blacks have played NHL hockey since Willie O'Ree became the first in 1958.

Author: John McGourty | Staff Writer

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