For Joel Ward, home has always been wherever the ice takes him.
Throughout his NHL career, he’s played in Nashville, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C., and before that, he was a Rookie of the Year and three-time MVP for the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers. Since 2015, he’s served as a veteran right-winger for the San Jose Sharks, but his ambition to skate started much closer to home.
His mother, Cecilia, never saw much ice growing up in Barbados, but when the family moved to Canada, all three of her sons were quickly bitten by the hockey bug. Back when Joel was 5 years old — still too young to play on a junior team — his mother found a way to get him some early practice.
“I remember making a homemade ice rink in the backyard,” Cecilia Ward recalls. “There was a kit, and I bought it and filled it with water.”
She describes seeing all the neighborhood kids in the suburbs of Toronto, where they played hockey every chance they got. When Joel’s older brothers decided to start skating, her youngest son was not about to be left behind — and Cecilia took the moment to learn the finer points of the game too.
However, there was one moment when she thought Joel might actually make his career with a different athletic pursuit.
“He played soccer and baseball and hockey,” she says. “He was involved in any sport he could find — you name it. At one point, I thought he was going to get a scholarship for playing soccer. He was very good. He even used to play as the goalie, too!”
Working as a nurse and raising three sons with her husband, Randal — also a native of Barbados — Cecilia went to great lengths to ensure Joel got every opportunity he wanted as an athlete. She says that occasionally, he’d miss a practice for one sport because he was already at practice for another.
Of course when the occasion arose, Joel was more than ready to do his part. When it comes to Mother’s Day, Cecilia says all she ever needed from Joel is “a good hug and kiss.” Her son was happy to oblige, although he confesses that sometimes he did opt for giving his mother more inventive gifts over the years.
“One time, my brother and I sang a Simply Red song for her,” he laughs. “It was ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ and we put that on a cassette tape.”
While the modern-day fate of this treasure is sadly unknown, Ward’s dedication to ensure her son had every opportunity to succeed as an athlete continues to this day. Joel reports that he still receives plenty of tips from her following games, even after 13 years in the league.
“After a game, she’ll throw a couple of jabs in there,” he says. “She does it in a positive way. It’s constructive criticism, but she’ll tell me that I’ve got to get the front of the net and stuff like that.”
While Cecilia grew up with cricket and soccer as the sports of the day, she was quick to embrace hockey as a Canadian transplant. Asked to share some of what she’s imparted to her son over the years, she mentions a few life lessons — being cooperative, showing respect — but quickly segues into how she’s helped her son with his performance in the rink.
“I always used to tell him to play as a team player, to pass the puck,” she says. “I actually think he did too much of that when he was growing up. He was always passing instead of shooting!”
“Sports was a big part of our relationship,” Joel confirms.
For every afternoon the two have spent discussing the intricacies of properly flanking the center and the best method for disrupting opponents, for each phone call they’ve shared to analyze a game after the final horn has sounded, it’s in addition to the countless hours Cecilia worked for years to ensure her son could live his dreams.
“My mother is tough,” Joel says, “but she is the hardest working person I know. She would sacrifice. She would work three jobs. Sometimes you wouldn’t see her for a whole day or two because she was working, but still, somehow, you’d turn around and there would be food on the stove and new clothes in the closet. I don’t know how she did it. She’s like a Houdini. You’d turn around, and next thing you know, there was bus fare on the table, even though you wouldn’t see her.”
“People always say that I did a great job with him,” she says with pride. “Everybody says that he’s very nice and cooperative and loving. I tell them, ‘Don’t forget me!’ ”