Over the summer, the San Jose Sharks identified a need for a versatile veteran who could be relied upon in all situations and play a hard game. There were a couple of names tossed around that were available via free agency, but only one stood out: Joel Ward.
"I got to coach against him a lot in the Eastern Conference while I was with New Jersey and he was in Washington, and I coached him at the World Championship [in 2014], so I knew him well and recommended to [Sharks general manager Doug Wilson] that if we got a chance to sign him, we should." said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer.
"I really felt he could help us. He plays the game the right way. He's a nice combination of size and power. He's got some finesse to his game. He can score goals. He goes to the tough areas of the ice. He's a real good hockey player, and he's a great teammate. There's a lot to like about Joel Ward."
Wilson agreed and on July 3 signed the 6-1, 226-pound right winger to a three-year deal worth $9.825 million.
"Every box we had, he checked off for us. He was just the perfect fit," Wilson explained. "He's been everything we hoped he would be and more and I think just epitomizes what being a hockey player is all about. He just loves the game."
It's that love for the game that paved Ward's long, winding and bumpy road to the NHL and continues to fuel his fire in his eighth season.
The youngest of three boys of Barbadian immigrants raised in a suburb of Toronto, all Ward ever wanted to do was play hockey. His older brothers, Shane and Julien, stopped playing in high school, but Joel just couldn't do it.
"I loved the game and wanted to play it. It was fun for me," Ward said. "It wasn't until I made the team in Owen Sound that I really started to think maybe I could do something with this and play at a higher level."
After four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, Ward wasn't drafted but earned a tryout with the Detroit Red Wings, where things didn't go quite the way he had hoped.
"They wanted me to go to Toledo and try out for their ECHL team, but they weren't going to put me on a contract. It was just a tryout and school had already started, and I had to make a decision," Ward explained. "Without a contract, I felt it was better to go the school route, work on my hockey, get an education and try again later."
Ward found a home at the University of Prince Edward Island, where he learned a lot about hockey and even more about himself as he navigated the challenges of being a student-athlete.
After two years with the Cougars, Ward earned another tryout, this time with the Minnesota Wild. And this time he was offered a contract -- a two-way AHL/ECHL deal.
But it wasn't the deal he wanted. With his dreams of playing in the NHL on life support, he returned to PEI to work on his game while continuing his studies.
"I just needed to get to the American League somehow," he said. "That was my goal. I just needed to get there, and if I did that, then I could give myself a shot of making it to the NHL. I just had to keep working hard."
Two years later and with a bachelor's degree in sociology in hand -- something he's very proud of -- he earned another tryout, this time with the Florida Panthers. They released him at the end of camp. Without any other options and an intense desire to play the game he loved, Ward signed a deal with their ECHL affiliate, the Florida Everblades.
The next day, Matt Shaw saw the transaction and the assistant coach with the Houston Aeros -- Minnesota's AHL affiliate at the time -- immediately picked up the phone.
"I thought he did everything really well. Nothing elite, but his game was very well rounded," said Shaw, who now is an assistant coach with the University of North Dakota. "We tried to sign him in Houston two years prior, but he wasn't interested, and I don't blame him. It really wasn't a great deal, and he would have lost his education package with the CHL.
"We thought we had a good team in Houston that year, but we were lacking some depth players. I saw his name on the transaction list, and we called and offered him a tryout contract. I thought he could help us."
Ward jumped at the chance and packed up his gear and headed to Houston before ever even suiting up for the Everblades.
"There were no holes in his game," Shaw recalled. "He was playing on the third line, and he was dominant and physically strong and could hold on to the puck. He didn't score a lot, but he was doing everything right. Coaches loved how he played, and that's when you started to think this guy could play in the NHL."
When his professional-tryout agreement expired, he signed a one-way AHL deal for the rest of the season and earned a two-year NHL/AHL deal after that. But after three seasons with Houston and an 11-game cup of coffee with the Wild, the then 27-year-old was not given a qualifying offer and became an unrestricted free agent.
"You saw there was something special about what he did on the ice. You couldn't always put your finger on it, but whatever it was, you knew you liked it." said Shaw. "It was just a matter of someone recognizing that and then recognizing that their team needs that."
The scouts with the Nashville Predators recognized that their AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, needed a player like Ward and signed him to a two-way deal with every intention of sending him to Wisconsin, but Ward and Barry Trotz, the Predators head coach at the time, had other ideas.
"Before his first training camp in Nashville, I was told by our scouts that he was a dependable guy, not a great skater, and would likely be a depth player," Trotz recalled. "Then when I saw him at training camp, he was a big body. He wasn't an easy skater, but he got around OK. He also had a really good stick. He broke up a lot of plays and was always in a good position. We started playing some exhibition game, and his ability to put pressure on the other team and his play along the wall was really good, and he killed some penalties and was really good at that too.
"At all the meetings, we had to sort out who we should cut and who we should keep, I kept bringing up his name. The scouts tend to push the guys they drafted, but the coaches really noticed the value of Joel and he kept playing well and we kept bringing his name up. We wanted him on the team, and we got him."
Ward shakes his head when recalling the memory.
"I remember one of the AHL coaches at the start of training camp told me to think about getting a place in Milwaukee, and in my head I said, 'There's no chance I'm getting a place in Milwaukee,'" Ward said.
"It was a grind, but I just kept telling myself to hang in there and keep at it and the coaches too. As camp went on, they were telling me to keep pushing and stay with it, and I tried really hard to make it really hard on them to send me down. I didn't want to go. I was just trying to be a hungry hockey player every single day and show that I belonged here. This was my shot."
The hard work paid off and Ward never spent another day in the AHL, earning a full time job as an NHL player at the age of 27.
After three years in Nashville and four with the Washington Capitals, Ward is on pace this season with the Sharks to crush his career high of 24 goals and 49 points, set two years ago with Washington. After 28 games, Ward is tied for third on the team with 22 points, including 10 goals.
"I've definitely seen myself grow as a player these past few years. I can play in the top six and on the power play. I'm not just the defensive, shutdown guy anymore," said Ward, who celebrated his 35th birthday on Dec. 2. "There are still a lot of areas for me to grow and improve, and I want to continue to do that."
Shaw was impressed with Ward's resiliency.
"There have been a lot of guys put in his position never to be heard from again, and he deserves a lot of credit for taking full advantage of the opportunities that were -- I can't even say given to him, but that he created for himself. It's always great when you see an underdog make it," Shaw said.
"He's found a way to carve out a really good career and that's because of the person he is," said Trotz, now the head coach of the Capitals. "He got an opportunity and he never let go. We might have opened the door to the NHL for him in Nashville, but he earned all of his success through sheer hard work."
For Ward, the work was definitely hard, but the desire to put in the effort came easy, fueled by his love for the game.
"I always wanted to play the game. I grew up in Toronto as a huge Leafs fan. I watched so many games and was a huge hockey fan," Ward said with his trademark mega-watt smile. "I always wanted to play and win the Stanley Cup. I didn't know where it was going to take me or how far I could go, but I always knew I just wanted to play. Still, I just love coming to the rink every day and playing hockey ... and I still want to win the Stanley Cup."
That's exactly what Wilson and DeBoer like to hear.