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Tuesday cannon fodder: Joel Ward retires

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A relatively unknown NHLer that you should know about hung ‘em up.

Winnipeg Jets v San Jose Sharks Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

I was all set to write CF with a cautionary message about the Premier League’s plans to return to play and to express my concern about not trying to get back to “normal” too quickly lest we risk a resurgence of coronavirus. But I’m not a doctor nor an expert on the infrastructure and human capital it would take for such an undertaking.

I know sports, and I write about sports. So when I saw hockey player Joel Ward had penned a retirement announcement in The Players’ Tribune, I figured I’d probably write about that. Then I read his piece and I ran to the computer.

I’m familiar with Ward because even though my first sports love was soccer, hockey stole my heart. Ward played four seasons with my beloved Washington Capitals and was a personal and fan favorite during his time in D.C.

On the ice, Ward was a grinder; he was a third-line checking forward. He scored goals here and there, including a memorable series-clinching overtime winner against the Bruins in 2011, but primarily, his job was to play the tough minutes and make life rough for the opposing team. You don’t get to 726 NHL games played without being good at your job.

But it was off the ice that he really shined. Ward is black. Black players, season over season, make up less than 5% of NHL rosters, and he understood how important his being in the NHL was to his community. He was outspoken about Willie O’Ree (hockey’s Jackie Robinson) not being in the Hall of Fame (he has since been inducted) and generally did not hesitate to share his thoughts on issues of race and hockey.

He was also deeply involved in the black hockey community in Washington, D.C. It seemed as if every other week, I would see a story about him running a practice, putting on clinic, or just being at Fort Dupont Ice Rink, a barn in Southeast D.C. that houses a hockey program for low-income, inner-city children. A quick search for a story to link to turned up this one — look at the date, February 2020 — five years after leaving D.C. as a player, he was back here volunteering in the community.

For his community involvement alone, Joel Ward will always have my respect and admiration.

I often look at athletes that I admire and don’t want to know more about them as individuals out of fear that I’ll end up disappointed. Reading Ward’s article in the Players’ Tribune did the opposite. I like him even more now than I did yesterday. A few paragraphs into the piece, he’d already written things that really resonated.

If, back then, you would have offered me just one single game in the league … I would have taken it and run. And I know I would have given everything I had in those 60 minutes, even if I knew there weren’t any more after. So when people ask me how I ended up playing 726, that’s what I tell ’em. I played every game — every single game — like it was the only one I’d ever have. That’s how I made it to this point.

Some players, they end on a perfect high, some have it taken from them. But me, I kind of thought it was fitting that I went out the way I came in — without anybody really noticing.

There something so human in how he tells his story, how he wanted something so badly that he’d do anything for just a small taste of it. I think all of us understand that feeling.

I think we also understand feeling unnoticed, and I appreciate the way Ward puts it. He doesn’t complain or wave his arms and jump up and down in an attempt to show you how much he mattered. He’s matter-of-fact and almost self-effacing about it. His humility is relatable and endearing.

But I think what most struck a chord with me was when Ward talked about the importance of his family in his life. From the support and belief of his parents in his NHL dream, to the love from his sibling and his wife, to his desire to be a good father to his young son, I felt all of it deeply. I’m incredibly blessed to have those same things in my life (minus the actual child) and even though I haven’t achieved the majority of my goals like it seems Ward has, it’s incredibly reassuring to read about someone who used that support and a whole lot of grinding to achieve the improbable, even if it was through an unconventional path.

Enjoy your retirement, Joel Ward.