Joel Ward was named an assistant coach for the Vegas Golden Knights’ American Hockey League affiliate in Henderson, Nevada on Monday.
The job launches the 39-year-old former forward, who played his last game in 2017-18 with the San Jose Sharks, on a desired path to become an NHL coach someday.
“It’s a new start, new job. You’re excited, you’re nervous, a lot of emotions,” Ward said. “I’m just so thankful for the opportunity to do something that I love to do. Hockey has been a big part of my life forever, and now I’m just so excited to get back into it.”
Ward becomes one of the few Black coaches in professional hockey at any level. Nigel Kirwan and Frantz Jean of the Tampa Bay Lightning are currently the only Black assistants in the NHL. Mike Grier decided not to return to the New Jersey Devils after two seasons.
Undrafted, Ward took the long road to the NHL as a player. He signed with Houston of the AHL, then the Minnesota Wild’s affiliate, on Dec. 4, 2005 after playing four seasons with the University of Prince Edward Island. He signed his first NHL contract with the Wild on Sept. 27, 2006, less than three months before he turned 26.
In 11 seasons Ward scored 304 points (133 goals, 171 assists) in 726 games with the Wild, Nashville Predators, Washington Capitals and the Sharks. He scored more than 20 goals in a season twice in the NHL (24 with the Capitals in 2013-14 and 21 with the Sharks in 2015-16).
Ward earned a reputation as a clutch postseason performer, scoring 52 points (22 goals, 30 assists) in 85 games. Perhaps none was bigger than the series-winning overtime goal for the Capitals against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
He also had 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in 24 games to help the Sharks reach the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, who coached Ward in Nashville and Washington, said that he couldn’t think of a better player or person to become a coach.
“He knows the game,” Trotz said. “He didn’t take the normal path, and I love that. You look at so many things that he can inspire young hockey players: Canadian college players, players who were not drafted, players who were later round picks or even picks who were even higher, and you see how he made it. He found something that he was really good at and he worked at his game.”
That’s not all Trotz thinks will make Ward a successful coach.
“He’s got such a great personality that he’ll have a very easy way to relate to young players,” Trotz said. “There’s an easy way about him, the way he carries himself, the way he communicates, and it’s genuine.”
Trotz gave Ward his first taste of what it’s like to coach young players when he asked him to work at the Predators development camps.
“I had Joel work with the young prospects on wall play and how he feels pressure, what he looks for and all the little details,” Trotz said. “He must have been 27 or 28. I saw it then that he might be someone who could shape young players if he got the opportunity. I know he’ll do a great job with that.”
Since he officially retired on April 7, 2020, Ward has been preparing for a coaching career. He participated in an NHL Coaches’ Association program created to help increase the number of Black, indigenous and people of color behind the bench.
The NHLCA paired Ward with Rob Zettler and Dave Barr, who were assistants when he played with the Sharks, to help him learn more about all aspects of coaching.
“I’ve been blessed with so many great coaches from Barry, Pete DeBoer, Adam Oates showed me a lot, Kevin Constantine was a coach I had in the minors. I could go on and on,” Ward said. “I’ve learned, paid attention to small things. I kind of kept evolving and growing as a player and as a man. I’m able to connect with a lot of guys on different levels and I’m just hoping to do so on the next level coaching here.”
NHLCA president Lindsay Artkin said her organization has “no doubt Joel will make an excellent coach.”
“The NHLCA is encouraged to see a coach of color given this type of opportunity behind the bench; we hope there are many more to come,” Artkin said.