Joel Ward: Hero to Goat, but classy throughout

I love Joel Ward.  He’s one of those players that, if you’re not paying attention to and really only check the stats, people could argue he’s a let down.  I don’t think so.  True, he struggled to make the score sheet in the regular season, but he wasn’t signed for regular season performance.  He was signed because of his super-human ability to elevate his game in the 2nd season – the one that comes 82 games after the initial season.  There was a buzz surrounding his signing in DC last summer, and for good reason.  Joel Ward was sold to the fans as the opposite of everything the Capitals have been over the past few years.

While the point production hasn’t come as advertised, I’ve learned a lot about Joel over the past week or so.  Mostly, I’ve learned to appreciate him on and off the ice.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about him before his arrival in Washington.  Predators’ games were rarely highlighted on National TV, and with all of the late interconference games Nashville is accustomed to, I just couldn’t stay awake most nights to take them in.   Sure, they did some preseason gigs here and there, but what can you really tell about a player or a team in preseason?  They’re adjusting to new linemates (that may or may not be sent down to the AHL soon); getting their legs back, maybe learning new systems…  it’s not a fair judgment forum.

So I let anything I may have thought I knew about Joel Ward slip my mind and waited to see him in action in Red before drawing my own conclusions.  What I saw was a tough player, one who puts the work in and does the little things.  He’s not afraid to get hurt, he’s got no problem getting dirty, and he’s a force in front of the net.  Hmmmm… judging by my other favorites in recent years (Knuble, Steckel, Laing, etc), he was a match for me. The goals and assists weren’t what many thought we were getting, but hey, he wasn’t signed for the regular season.

And then the second season began.

Looking at his stats today he has 1 goal, 4 assists, is a +3 and has 6 PIMS (four of which came last night, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Again, it’s not what people expected.  But let’s forget for a minute that his goal was the biggest goal for his team this season.  Let’s focus on what happened after it.

Twitter erupted with Racist Tweets.  I can’t even think about copying what was said, as trash like that doesn’t deserve to be shared.  We all know what was out there.  I was impressed with Boston stepping up and issuing an apology for small minority of their fan base.  Classy move by the organization, and much appreciated, especially by Ward himself who acknowledged his teammates, organization, and even the Bruins for their support.  In the middle of the aftermath, a buddy of mine in Toronto texted me to tell me he was listening to an interview with Ward on local radio up there.  The words this friend of mine used to describe Ward were “gentleman, class act, warm.”  I couldn’t agree more.  The way Ward carried himself after that mess showed me that he’s not just an honorable warrior on the ice; he’s one off the ice as well.

Fast forward to last night.  The Penalty heard round Caps nation.  To make it worse, there was blood.  The 2 minutes of horror quickly turned to 4 minutes of desperation and the Caps couldn’t hold on to the lead.  We all know how the story turned out.  Twitter blew up with arguments of blame Ward vs. blame the team for not capitalizing on earlier chances.  And somewhere, tucked away (luckily not in any of my newsfeed), were the return of racist comments.  This time, from both Caps and Rangers fans.  What a blow.  The baffling ignorance of the conclusion of the first series reared its ugly head again, but this time from the fans of the Red, White, & Blue.  People who clearly don’t respect the game or the players who put on such a show for us night in and night out.

Yet, when the reporters entered the room, guess who was waiting for them?  Mr. Ward himself.  Guess who took responsibility for the loss?  Guess who could have easily hidden and made himself unavailable to the media, but instead wanted to “face the music” – even though it wasn’t all his music to face.  Honorable Warrior off the ice, indeed.

I have a tendency to root for the character guys.  I love goals and stats and heroes, but I love the guys who support the stars more.  I love the blue collar, the accessible, the personable, the team guys.  Joel Ward joined that list for me earlier this season, and after the way he’s carried himself despite the unfathomable emotional roller coaster he’s been on lately, I’m now in the market for a red #42 sweater.