It’s a journey that took him through the OHL, WCHL, U Sports and AHL before he finally arrived at the NHL, where he became a cult hero in multiple markets and one of the most recognized Black faces in the game.
In April 2020, the pride of Scarborough, Ont., and veteran of over 700 NHL games announced his retirement as a player, but he didn’t step away from the game for long.
Just seven months later, Ward received a call from the Henderson Silver Knights, the top farm team of the Vegas Golden Knights and newest AHL franchise. Ward was hired as an assistant coach on Manny Viveiros’ staff, a role that has allowed him to get his feet wet in the coaching world while also taking on a mentorship role for those climbing the ranks of pro hockey.
“For me just to share my experiences with the players, I’ve been in their shoes, I’ve played in the American League level, I’ve been called up, I’ve been sent down, I’ve had the chance to play different positions. I’ve been able to play on the penalty kill and power play at different levels,” Ward told Yahoo Sports Canada.
“For me it’s about sharing my knowledge and my experience with them and try to help get them to the next level. That’s what it’s about for these guys, just to develop and become good pros on and off the ice. For me, it’s about being that ear for any questions that they have and hopefully I get a chance to tap into a few of them and they make that next jump.”
Not only has Ward been able to help players get to the next step, he’s also helping lead a team that currently has the best record in the AHL at 11-2-0.
Ward’s presence behind the bench has also been another major step towards increasing diversity in the game at the coaching level. There hasn’t been many Black faces behind a pro hockey bench, and it’s not lost on Ward that in his role he can inspire kids of colour to do more in the sport beyond playing.
“Representation is so huge, seeing someone behind the bench for kids,” Ward said. “It’s not always about necessarily being at centre ice taking faceoffs. There’s different roles in the game of hockey you can be a part of.”
“There are managerial roles, there’s coaching, there’s refereeing, this is just one area where hopefully kids who have an aspiration to be a coach one day, whether it’s in hockey or in other sports, to see me as representation is huge. For me to be a positive role model to try and open some more doors is huge.”
Being a leader in the push for more representation is nothing new for Ward. The 40-year-old appeared in the 2015 hockey documentary Soul on Ice, and last year before the COVID-19 shutdown he famously did the ceremonial faceoff at a Capitals-Penguins game in a Black Girl Hockey Club hoodie.
Ward has been a big supporter of the group, founded by Renee Hess, that works to give a safe space to Black women and their families at hockey games and events. Ward believes the work Hess has done is essential in making others feel comfortable and gain a passion for the game of hockey.
“What Renee is doing with Black Girl Hockey Club is fantastic, I wish there was something that when I was playing — my mother could have joined on to go around to other games,” he said. “For her to start the club has been huge. What she’s doing is very powerful and inspirational. It’s encouraging more girls and more people of colour to get involved with the game.
“For me (wearing the hoodie) was just a way of showing my appreciation of what she’s doing but also letting people know the game is for everyone, regardless of your background or skin colour. The hockey arena should be a safe place for everyone”.
Nearly a year after Ward’s return to the hockey spotlight that night, he was involved in one of the wildest situations of the 2020-21 season.
With the entire Vegas coaching staff unavailable against the St. Louis Blues for a game in January due to COVID-19 protocols, general manager Kelly McCrimmon took the reins behind the bench while the Henderson crew worked as his assistants.
The situation left the Henderson coaching staff scrambling to adjust their plans that day.
“It happened so fast to be honest with you,” Ward said. “One minute we were prepping for meetings, going over clips, and the next thing we’re getting a call saying hey we gotta go over to T-Mobile soon.”
Not lost in all the chaos was Ward’s fashion sense, as his gameday suit received a lot of praise on social media.
“You know I’m just trying to be myself, that’s it man,” he said. “I’m not a fashionista by any sense but you know, I just pick and choose things that I like but it just works for me. Hopefully I can be more noticed for my coaching as opposed to my wardrobe,” Ward said, chuckling.
There’s no limit to where Ward’s journey leads him next given his background and experience in the game. One day we could be talking about Joel Ward as a head coach or the first Black general manager, but right now his goal is to focus on what’s in front of him, and that’s winning a championship with Henderson.
He wants it to be known, however, that reaching this position as a Black person truly is possible.
“Right now, I’m just going to enjoy my time here, working under Manny and the Vegas organization in Henderson, for me I’m going to take in as much information and I’m just enjoying the process,” Ward said. “I’m just trying to learn and just trying to get better as a coach and a person every day. If I’m able to be in a position like this then there’s no reason why other people can’t, you just have to put in that work and put in that grind.”
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