Joel Ward isn’t sure how the nickname started in Washington other than it had something to do with being the big man on campus.
To this day, he still gets text messages from former Capitals teammates asking how “Big Cheese” is doing.
“It kind of stuck,” Ward said. “Someone says ‘Big Cheese,’ I turn around and look and see who’s calling for me.”
With a nickname like that, and the affable personality to match, it was only natural Ward would find his way into coaching when his playing career was done.
Now, the first-year Silver Knights assistant is passing on the knowledge he gained from 11 seasons in the NHL and serving as a role model for aspiring Black and other minority coaches.
“I think it’s just opening more doors and giving kids more hope to join this game and be part of it in some aspect, whether it’s playing on the ice or being part of it off the ice,” the 40-year-old said. “I learned so much over the years, it’d be a shame if I kept that to myself and not be able to share it with a few guys. It’s something that I definitely wanted to try and pursue post-playing.”
Ward traveled a winding path to the NHL, playing four seasons at the University of Prince Edward Island before he signed with the Minnesota Wild organization in 2005 and was assigned to Houston of the American Hockey League.
During his three seasons with the Aeros, Ward bonded with defenseman Shawn Belle, who is Black.
“It’s definitely a time I hold a lot of value and great memories of because I know being a hockey player and being a person of color, the locker room can sometimes be a lonely place,” Ward said.
Ward moved to Nashville as a free agent in 2008 and developed into a dependable two-way winger with a bit of scoring touch under coach Barry Trotz.
After three seasons with the Predators, Ward signed a free-agent deal with Washington and posted a career-high 24 goals and 49 points in 2013-14. He also was the victim of an ugly incident in 2012 when he was racially abused by fans after scoring in overtime of Game 7 against Boston.
Ward, who represented Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Championship, finished his career in San Jose playing for Pete DeBoer. In 726 career games, he had 133 goals and 304 points. His final season was in 2018, and Ward officially retired in 2020.
“There’s certain players that you coach that you just have a gut feel are going to be good coaches themselves,” said DeBoer, in his second season as coach of the Golden Knights. “Joel’s always been one of those guys. He’s got that ability to teach. He’s got that ability to relate to the fourth liner and the first liner because he played all over his career.”
Ward’s natural enthusiasm and knowledge of DeBoer’s system made him an ideal coaching candidate with the Silver Knights. He interviewed over the phone with head coach Manny Viveiros and was hired in November.
Nine-year NHL veteran Fred Brathwaite, who also is Black, is the team’s goaltending coach, making the Silver Knights’ staff one of the most diverse in professional hockey.
According to information provided by the NHL Coaches’ Association, there are currently eight visible minority coaches in the NHL. St. Louis’ Craig Berube, who is of First Nations descent, is the lone head coach.
“It’s an opportunity to use this platform in such a positive way, and that’s something I know Joel and Fred are strongly involved in that,” Viveiros said. “That’s something, especially now with today’s times and how they’ve been this last year with the social unrest throughout the whole world, it’s good to see these guys using this platform in such a positive way.”
Ward is a founding member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, and he’s formed a connection with Silver Knights forward Jermaine Loewen, who is Jamaican. Ward’s parents immigrated to Canada from Barbados.
Ward’s effort with the Silver Knights’ forwards has been an integral part of the 7-1 start. The team averages 3.38 goals per game.
“He was just working with (Peyton Krebs) and I after practice doing a drill where you keep your eyes on the net while the puck comes to you,” captain Patrick Brown said last month. “It’s just a little thing I’ve never even seen before. Guys that are fresh out of the NHL, they really see it well.”
Ward coached in the NHL before he was ever behind the bench for an AHL game when the Silver Knights’ staff filled in Jan. 26 while the Golden Knights’ coaches were self-isolating because of COVID-19 protocols.
Like he did as a player, Ward is soaking up the day-to-day details of coaching from Viveiros and assistant Jamie Heward. The long-term goal is to land with an NHL club.
Dirk Graham, who led Chicago for 59 games during the 1988-99 season, is the only Black head coach in NHL history.
“From minor hockey all the way up to pros, why would you not want more color into the game? A little bit more excitement, bring more fans to it. C’mon,” Ward said. “It’s been a lot of fun. Sometimes I have to relax a little bit because I get too excited. I’ve got to tone it down and understand I’m on the other side.”
Joel Ward file
Role: Silver Knights assistant coach
Hometown: North York, Ontario
College: University of Prince Edward Island
Playing career: 133 goals, 171 assists, 304 points in 726 NHL games
Minorities in NHL
According to information provided by the NHL Coaches’ Association, there are currently eight visible minority coaches in the NHL:
— Craig Berube, St. Louis (head coach)
— Frantz Jean, Tampa Bay (goaltending coach)
— Nigel Kirwan, Tampa Bay (head video coach)
— Sudarshan Maharaj, Anaheim (goaltending coach)
— Manny Malhotra, Toronto (assistant coach)
— Samson Lee, Los Angeles (video coordinator)
— Sam Kim, Toronto (video and coaching coordinator)
— Tim Ohashi, Seattle (head video analyst)