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TONY BEST: Ice star with warm heart


TONY BEST

TONY BEST: Ice star with warm heart

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A hint of chill in the North American air sends a clear message to tens of millions of sports lovers that top-class ice hockey is about to take over their lives.

Another National Hockey League season is at hand, and the name of the son of a Barbadian mother will be among those ringing in the ears of hockey fanatics. 

The name is that of Joel Ward, a 35-year-old top professional who will play once again for the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks, a team that came close to winning the Stanley Cup, the symbol of hockey supremacy in North America. 

The Sharks lost the championship race but fans still talk about Ward’s play during the finals.

He is among several children of Barbadian parents who have reached the zenith of professional hockey by playing in the NHL or in Europe in the past quarter of a century.  Kevin Weekes, Anson Carter, Fred Brathwaite and Peter Worrell are some of them.

They have made names for themselves and earned millions of dollars from an expensive sport that is almost exclusively white and is to Canadians what cricket is to about a billion people around the world.

The son of the late Randall Ward and Cecilia, his wife, Joel was born in Canada and has been the beneficiary of the love and attention of a hardworking Bajan nurse. She had to raise three boys on her own after their father suffered a stroke and died while watching Joel play a hockey game when the child was 14 years old.

So, when he hits the ice in the first game of the 2017 NHL regular season in October, Ward will hear the cheers from the crowd as he skates with zest. 

He will make at least CAN$3 million this year and will help write another chapter in the history of those who have helped to integrate the sport. About 15 to 20 blacks are in the NHL this season, the largest number ever to play.

But what separates Ward from many of his current or former teammates isn’t simply the adversity he endured as a youngster growing up but how he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

Ward’s is one of the feel good stories in the NHL, stated the Toronto Globe & Mail newspaper recently.

“He grew up of modest means in Scarborough, Ontario, the son of two immigrants from Barbados who learned about hockey from the neighbourhood kids, including NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes.”

Ward is known for his actions on and off the rink, meaning “his generosity and humble spirit during one of the most unlikely routes to NHL stardom in the League,” added the paper.

He mentors children, often contributes to their education, and in several ways helps aspiring youths who have dreams of making it big in hockey. At the same time, the Bajan-Canadian is considered a gentleman in a sport in which fistfights are commonplace.

“The thing with Joel is the impression and mark that he’s left in his hockey journey everywhere he played,” said Doug Currie, who coached the University of Prince Edward Island hockey team. 

He played four seasons for the university and earned a bachelor’s degree to please his mother. Few NHL professionals have a university degree.

“You can’t help but root for him, if you know him. He’s just a fantastic guy,” said Brian O’Leary, who coached Joel when he played in the Ontario Hockey League. “He’s not different whether he’s making $3 million a year or whatever.”

In addition to the Sharks, Ward has played for the NHL’s Nashville Predators and the Washington Capitals.

 

Tony Best is the NATION’s North American Correspondent. Email: [email protected]

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