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Big-Game Wardo

by Dan Marrazza / San Jose Sharks

The night before the playoffs began, NHL Network ran a stat during its evening highlights.

If there was a way to quantify “clutch,” this might be it. And by this definition, Joel Ward, whose clutchness is so often referenced that he might as well legally change his name to “Mr. Clutch,” is indeed very clutch.

“This is his time of year,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said of Ward. “He’s that type of player.”

While these stats, as well as rewind viewing of the third period of Game 1 against Nashville, show Ward involved in one clutch moment after the other, it doesn’t really explain “why” a player just so happens to be a clutch.

Or how they got that way.

Intrigued by the concept, we did some digging to try to figure out how Joel Ward became clutch, and when he got this reputation.

What we found was rather interesting. In fact, Ward’s clutchness even predates his career as a professional ice hockey player, seemingly beginning in the late 1990s when he was something of a schoolyard legend as a roller hockey player.

“He was a beast on wheels during the games, but a gentle giant off the rink,” Jeff Kotcher, a former roller hockey contemporary of Ward’s, said when contacted by sjsharks.com. “Even as a kid, I remember Joel playing with grit, speed and confidence.”

Ward’s grit, speed and confidence, developed on the roller hockey rinks of suburban Toronto, were so legendary that by his teenage years he was being recruited by top club teams in the United States, at times being flown in for a single tournament.

John Schiavo is a 22-year-old Long Island native who played professional hockey this season in the ECHL and Southern Pro Hockey League. Ward’s roller hockey prowess, most often for teams based out of Long Island, was so distinct that Schiavo still has memories of watching him as a child.

“I remember him playing, along with guys in Hot Skates, which was a local hockey rink on Long Island,” Schiavo told sjsharks.com. “He was pretty good.

“The way roller hockey is, there were a lot of between-the-legs goals, a lot of creativity. Just a lot of time and space with 4-on-4 roller hockey. A couple of times, you see guys pick the puck up on their sticks and try to put it in the net. Or between-the-legs shooting and trying to score.

“I’d always see him at the tournaments. The nationals and stuff. Being younger, those were the teams and the guys that I looked up to in Long Island.”

While kids like Schiavo, himself now an accomplished hockey player, were looking up to players like Ward, he wasn’t the only one noticing the current Shark’s roller hockey exploits.

Despite Ward’s top roller hockey moments coming in Lynbrook, Long Island, on a rink even untraditional by roller hockey standards – hardwood, smaller than regulation size – a player of that caliber excelling on teams that advanced to national tournaments was just too good to go unnoticed.

Even if he lacked the pedigree of a true ice hockey prospect at the time, Ward, as he’s had a way of doing, kept scoring clutch goals at a variety of lower levels, forcing his way through a number of obstacles – not getting drafted by an NHL team, cut from his only tryout with the Detroit Red Wings, relegated to Canadian college hockey, from where NHL players seldom rise, at the University of Prince Edward Island, to not even being considered good enough for the American Hockey League upon graduation.

Eventually catching a break by signing an ECHL contract for a few hundred dollars a week with the Florida Everblades – a team that, coincidentally, played its home games in an arena Ward played national roller hockey championships in – Ward earned a brief tryout with the Minnesota Wild’s AHL affiliate, where his clutchness again peaked in a 2005-06 playoff game.

Suiting up for the Houston Aeros, Ward scored two goals and an assist against his recent Game 1 victim, Pekka Rinne, in a loss to the Milwaukee Admirals, who were affiliated with the Nashville Predators.

Seeing that particular performance, as well as several others over the following two years in which Ward just destroyed Milwaukee, Nashville decided to bring him over to their side, but at the NHL level.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Ward scored nine goals in 18 career playoff games with the Predators, got picked up by the Washington Capitals, made an art of eliminating defending Stanley Cup champions in overtime and signed with the Sharks last summer. With San Jose, Ward’s continued his clutch thing four assists in the first round against Los Angeles and the late go-ahead goal and an assist in Game 1 against Nashville.

Joel Ward 2015-16 Regular Season Points/Game: 0.54

Joel Ward 2015-16 Playoffs Points/Game: 1.00

If you’re keeping score at home, Ward is now “0.27” points/game better in the playoffs than in the regular season, even better than when this postseason began.

Just rolling along, as if he learned to do this on wheels.

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