NHL veteran Joel Ward says UPEI helped make him 'a better man'
Former Panther standout reminisces about fun times in Charlottetown
It's just like old times for Joel Ward back in Charlottetown. Except, perhaps, he won't be riding a grocery cart up Queen Street.
And, after an 11-year career in the NHL, he's got plenty of hockey stories from the time after he played for the UPEI Panthers from 2001-05.
Playing in famous arenas, staying in fancy hotels, just hanging out with the best hockey players in the world.
Oh, and that game-winning goal he scored in overtime with the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the 2012 NHL playoffs against the Boston Bruins.
"I was just so excited," he said. "Sometimes I'm still pinching myself, that was really me, you know."
But this weekend, the reminiscing will be about his time at UPEI.
Ward is back in Charlottetown for the UPEI Men's Hockey Alumni Day. Ward will also be honoured before the Panthers take on St. FX Saturday night at MacLauchlan Arena.
"They were critical years in my life. It definitely made me develop into a better man and a hockey player as well," he said.
Ward, who is from Toronto and now lives in California, said it feels good to reconnect with some of his old friends and teammates from his UPEI days, such as John Brioux, Darcy Harris, Nathan Ramage, Adam Rivet, former coach Doug Currie and others.
My time here was unbelievable and just the guys that I played with made it very special.— Joel Ward
"My time here was unbelievable and just the guys that I played with made it very special," he said. "I was just a kid who kind of wanted to come here to go to school and play some hockey and just have fun."
One of those fun memories came back when he signed his first pro contract and splurged on a new Chevrolet Trailblazer SUV.
"I remember being here in university, we'd take those shopping carts up and down Queen Street back to our apartment so it was a sense of relief to own my own car finally for the first time."
After playing 726 games in the NHL — with 133 goals and 304 points — Ward said he is now "wrapping his head around retirement."
The 38-year-old's contract ended last season with the San Jose Sharks and he failed to stick with the Montreal Canadiens during a tryout last fall.
Expecting a child
The transition is easier, he said, because he and his wife are expecting a child and he can start "a new chapter of fatherhood."
Of course, retirement also frees up time to do other things, like come back to P.E.I. for a visit.
"I got to live out my childhood dream ... I wish everybody could experience it," he said.
"It's just that friendship that I gained here over the years that will never be replaced."
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With files from Mainstreet P.E.I. and CBC News: Compass