Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada
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Hockey DayPEI remains a big part of Joel Ward today

Posted: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 | 02:33 PM

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Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward wasn't sure what to expect when he first attended the University of Prince Edward Island over 10 years ago, but he came to love the place, and visits whenever he can.

The annual Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada will celebrate Prince Edward Island on Saturday. The land of Anne of Green Gables, potatoes and Stompin' Tom Connors may be the smallest province in Canada, but its hockey tradition is rich and full of characters. From visits by St. Dunstan's University to the national championship to NHL success from pioneers like Forbes Kennedy Billy MacMillan and Errol Thompson to current NHLers Mark Flood, Adam McQuaid and Brad Richards, PEI has a proud hockey past. Richards celebrated the Stanley Cup with the locals in 2004 after his Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL championship. McQuaid followed suite seven summers later with his victorious Boston Bruins. This week senior hockey writer Tim Wharnsby will compile a series of stories on PEI hockey. This instalment takes a look at Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward's recollections at UPEI.

Joel Ward went back to Prince Edward Island for a reunion with some old teammates last summer. This time, he was excited.

That wasn't the case the first time he landed in Charlottetown, 10 ½ years ago. Back in 2001, then University of Prince Edward Island Panthers head coach Doug Currie had recruited Ward to continue his hockey career in Charlottetown and receive an education in the process.

Ward was apprehensive. He didn't know much about Canada's smallest province. His first impression didn't help matters.

"I remember when I first landed I was ready to make a U-turn home," the 31-year-old Washington Capitals forward recalled with a chuckle. "I just didn't feel that there was anything there. The campus bar was an old barn back then. I was pretty nervous about what I was getting into. But I gave it a chance and wound up really enjoying it there."

Ward was born and raised in Scarborough, Ont. He was accustomed to big-city life. But when it came time to move away and play major junior, he wound up in Owen Sound Attack, the smallest market in the Ontario Hockey League.

Ward had to pull out a map to find where Owen Sound was located. Maybe if he doesn't spend four wonderful years there living with the Minard family he doesn't give PEI chance. Maybe if a couple of his Owen Sound teammates -- Adam Campbell and Jason Kowalski, who is from Summerside -- don't wind up playing for UPEI and give Charlottetown a thumbs up Ward doesn't bother agreeing to his hockey scholarship with UPEI. A third Owen Sound teammate, goalie Cory Roberts, is from Winsloe, PEI and wound up facing Ward as a member of the Saint Mary's University Huskies.

"I thought it would be better than going to the East Coast league," Ward said. "But I had no clue about PEI. I didn't even know where it was. You're right about Owen Sound. I figured if I could spend four years in the smallest market of the Ontario Hockey League and enjoy it, I would like the experience of going to school in Charlottetown, too. The only difference is I didn't have my billets.

"I based my decision on what guys like Adam and Corey told me. I thought that if I was going to school, I wanted to enjoy the experience and be with some friends.
'Great place'
 "What a great place. I had a blast. The best thing was the people I met, the people I played with. To share the experience on the ice and in the classroom with them will be something I will never forget."

Ward liked it so much, he wound up spending a couple summers there, too, to take a few courses and work at the Andrews hockey school. That's where he met current NHLers from PEI, Winnipeg Jets defenceman Mark Flood and Boston Bruins blue-liner Adam McQuaid. Flood has become a good friend of Ward's.

In reminiscing about his times in PEI, Ward went out of the way to single out a couple of his sociology professors who made an impact on him, Judy-Lynn Richards and Tom Trenton. Ward remarked that Richards was tough, but kept him focussed on his schooling. Ward made an impression on Richards, too. 

"He remains to this day the most polite student, a real gentleman, and a genuine person," Richards said. ""I am so proud of Joel. He believed in himself and never wavered from his beliefs about his abilities.

"I use to yell my support from the stands in the Civic Centre. Now I yell it from the couch when I watch him play on TV."

Other than a brief stop by Charlottetown for a wedding a few years ago, Ward had not ventured back to PEI until last summer to meet up with some his old teammates to play golf and revisit some old haunts. He was disappointed that Myron's, the establishment some of the Panthers would frequent on Saturdays, had closed down. But he was chauffeured around Charlottetown to new places.

Ward also visited the UPEI campus, saw his old residence and the other nearby off-campus places he lived.
No guarantee

After his time in Owen Sound, Ward was invited by the Detroit Red Wings to their training camp in 2001. But he was cut. So it was off to UPEI. He almost left the Panthers midway through when the Minnesota Wild brought him to its training camp. But the Wild would not guarantee a spot on its AHL team in Houston.

"If I get an AHL contract I probably would never have gone back to finish my degree," Ward said.

Ward did finish his sociology degree, and he wound up playing in the NHL. First for the Wild, then the Nashville Predators, where he was one of their playoff heroes last spring, and now for the Capitals. His next game will be No. 312 of his NHL career (regular season and playoff games combined). Not bad for an unheralded and undrafted player.

Ward lost his father Randall when he was 14 years old. Dad was watching his son play a minor hockey game at the venerable St. Michael's College Arena in Toronto and suffered a stroke. He passed away a few days later.

There have been many, including his proud mother Cecilia and the Minard family, who have helped Ward carry on. PEI played a part, too.

"We didn't win any championships, but we all became better players and better people," Ward said.

"When I went back this summer I couldn't believe how many of the guys I played with there, who were from Ontario [Johnny Brioux, Scott Cameron Jason Flick], wound up marrying there and staying there. I don't blame them."

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