When I was 24 years old, I scored 16 goals for the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers in my senior season.
It was my final year playing college hockey in Canada. Four years of grinding it out, chasing an NHL dream that, with every winter in Charlottetown, seemed further and further away. There was no template — no guy who did four years, graduated and made it to the show. There were no scouts at my games, no agents calling me after practices. Sixteen goals in college hockey doesn’t quite pop off the page for a guy who is older than a good number of NHL players.
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.
And this point, right here, it’s the end.
I’m retiring today.
I know I didn’t play the last two years, but I tried. I did. I wish I could have gone out in a bit of a different way. But, you know, just thinking about it all — all 726 games — I realized something.
Who am I to wish for any more time?
I got what I wanted. I’m one of the lucky ones.
Hockey is a beautiful game, and it works in mysterious ways. 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.
My mom, though, she noticed. In fact, she was upset about it. She didn’t want me to hang ’em up. Because she’s got a ritual every Saturday night. She sits at home in Scarborough, puts on Hockey Night in Canada, watches Ron and Don, and watches Toronto. She’s a huge Leafs fan. She texts me all the time with thoughts and complaints about them. Even when I was still playing she’d be texting on a Saturday as I was getting ready for a game, Why isn’t Babcock playing Nylander with Matthews? What’s he doing?
Ma, I don’t know!
Now that I’m done, she’s worried she’ll lose the insider info she thought I had.
She’s the best. I think, somehow, she always knew I’d make it. Her and Dad, they knew. They’d be telling friends and family that I’d be in the NHL one day.
When you have that support as a young kid, all you want to do is make them proud. That’s why all I wanted was just the one game.
My dad passed when I was 14. I’ve talked about it before, and his impact on our family lives on through hockey. He’s the reason I play, he’s the reason Mom watches. He’s the reason I made it to 726. Everything we did as a family after he left us, I felt his presence.
When my mom suggested we go to the NHL draft in 1999 in Boston, despite there being little chance of me being picked, I did it because I knew it’s what Dad would have wanted. I was taken in the 15th round of the OHL draft two years before, so I knew I wasn’t going to be picked. Patrick Stefan went first overall, the Sedin twins followed.
And after 269 more picks without my name being called, we left.
I just wanted a chance, a shot. I didn’t have, relatively, a whole lot of skills. I wasn’t a smooth skater. I wasn’t a fighter or a grinder really. I was just me, Joel. What I did have, though, was some hockey IQ because I watched so much hockey growing up. My dad was this big-hearted Bajan guy, and, man, he loved the game. He took me to the old Maple Leaf Gardens all the time when I was little. I was there when Dougie Gilmour wrapped it around past Cujo in 1993. I was in the grey seats, just soaking it all in. Seeing a scene like that, that’s how you get hooked.
I just kept chasing that feeling.
I moved on from P.E.I. in 2005 (and graduated a year later), found an opportunity down with the Florida Everblades in the ECHL. I signed a contract that would pay me like $700 a week or something, and it was just the best thing in the world. I’m playing hockey for a living. It was truly incredible.
I was there when Dougie Gilmour wrapped it around past Cujo in 1993. I was in the grey seats, just soaking it all in.
Maybe, in some alternate reality, there is a version of me still playing in Florida, just loving it. Happy. Whole. Enjoying the sun, the bus rides, playing hockey for life.
It didn’t happen that way, though. Just two days later, before I ever even played a game in Florida, I got a chance to make an AHL team in Houston. There, I found something in me that my parents knew I had, but took me time to find: Drive. I don’t know how it kicked in, but I just worked my damn butt off, I really did. When you’re that close to the show, you can smell it.
On December 16, 2006, I was reunited with two guys I had seen in Boston at the draft — Daniel and Henrik Sedin. My first NHL game was on Hockey Night in Canada, in Vancouver for the Minnesota Wild. Jacques Lemaire gave me the chance to start, with my mom and a bunch of family in the stands. I got a shot off on Roberto Luongo that night. That’s all I really remember. It was unreal.
If that had been the end of it all, if that had been the game I’d always wanted — then I would have been fine, I would have been happy.
Cecilia and Randall Ward, parents to an NHL player.
You can never take that away from me.
There’s a lot of stories I could tell from those 726 games. When I glide through them, like flipping the pages of a photo album, this is what I see.
There’s Coach Lemaire reading out my name in Vancouver.
There’s 2011 in Nashville, and the best crowd I’ve ever seen in my life.
There’s Ovi, with the biggest smile on his face, flying at me full speed after I scored against Boston in overtime.
There’s WARD on the back of a Team Canada jersey at the world championships in 2014.
Then there’s San Jose, and everything that place has meant to me.
That isn’t one image, really. It’s more like a feeling.
I miss that group so much already. I miss how much fun it was to come to the rink every day. That’s what separates San Jose from anywhere else. The atmosphere in that locker room, it’s remarkable. Every day was a blessing there. Patty, Pavs, Jumbo, Burnzy — those guys set the culture and everyone followed. I’m thankful to that organization for the opportunity to have played there, to have been a part of it all.
Really, thank you.
I still watch highlights from the Cup final in 2016. It still hurts. You don’t get over it, you just live with it forever. But, as more time passes, I cherish it more and more. I remember thinking during Game 1, like, That’s Sid right there. Dude scored more goals in his sleep than I did in my entire career. But I earned my right to be there, I know that. What a damn experience — for real, it was just unbelievably fun.
It’s the moments in between that I want back, though. The flights, hotel rooms, pregame speeches with the boys. That’s the glue, right, that keeps all the stories — all the great moments — together in your mind.
I still watch highlights from the Cup final in 2016. It still hurts. You don’t get over it, you just live with it forever.
When I saw my son during my wife’s ultrasound over a year ago, I couldn’t wait to tell him those stories.
That’s, I think, what made me ready to call it a career.
I just wanted to be a dad.
My family has been there for me every step of the way. From my wife Kathleen, to my parents and brother Julian, I’m so incredibly grateful and thankful that they’re in my life. Without them, there’s no me. My rock, my people.
Thank you guys.
A few months ago, after our son was born, I knew there was one more thing I had to do before I announced my retirement. I needed Robinson, my boy, to see me in my Sharks gear one more time.
I got the opportunity at an alumni game in September. It was surreal to be back on the ice at the SAP Center.
A few shifts in, I caught myself gazing into the stands. I saw where Kathleen always would sit, where my mom would sit when she’d come. I thought of the finals. I remembered the sound that place used to make, the roars.
At one point, I saw the figure of my dad in the stands.
His spirit could never stay away from the rink. I used to see him from time to time at different games. He was a sucker for the game, just like me.
I gave him a nod.
You were right, Dad. You were right.
Being on the ice that day, it just made me realize how much I love this game. I don’t think it’s seen the last of me, yet, either. My playing days? Yeah, they’re done. But I have a feeling I’ll be back in one form or another.
It was a really emotional day. I took a photo with Robinson. He didn’t know exactly what was happening, but he will someday. And I hope it means as much to him as it did to me.
One day, his grandma and I will tell him about the journey. We’ll tell him about his grandpa. We’ll make sure he knows that if you love something, just keep chasing it.
Chase it and chase it and chase it.
Until one becomes 726.
Thank you, hockey.