On Saturday, former Capitals player and treasured fan-favorite Joel Ward returned to DC to host a street hockey clinic. Ward and about 20 local kids, many of whom were players for the Fort Dupont Cannons, played a game of pick-up ball hockey at Watkins Recreation Center in Southeast DC.
Ward, who played four seasons with the Capitals before joining the San Jose Sharks as a UFA, retired from professional hockey last year. Ward spoke appreciatively of being back on the East Coast.
“It feels like home,” Ward said. “I’m just happy to be back in DC, it brings back a lot of memories from my playing days here, just seeing a lot of familiar faces.”
Ward is being honored by the Capitals on Sunday, where he has been invited to drop the ceremonial first puck at the Capitals’ Black History Night. During his time as a Capital, Ward skated with the Fort Dupont Cannons multiple times. The Cannons are the oldest minority youth hockey program in North America.
“What sticks out to me is the kids,” Ward said of his experiences. “I love their faces when I go out to practice. Some of them haven’t even watched a Caps game before, but just to have the jersey on, to see their faces light up was cool. I’ve had a lot of great moments playing on the ice, but the off-ice is what really had an impact on the kids and some of the people in the community. That was really rewarding.”
Ward had many words of praise for Coach Neal Henderson, the 82-year-old founder of the Fort Dupont Ice Arena. Henderson was recently inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame for his contributions to the growth of hockey.
“Love that dude, what an inspiration he is to everyone in this world,” Ward said. “We need more Neal Hendersons in this world. People who really care for the kids. He was a father figure, a brother, a cousin, he was a best friend to a lot of people who came through there.”
Ward and Henderson shared an embrace and caught up with each other even as the ball hockey game continued around them–chatting about where a former Fort Dupont player had gone on to play, and what a former coach was up to now.
The 39-year-old Ward was a vocal player on the court on Saturday, yelling for passes from his young teammates and taking the time to dole out tips on positioning and using the boards. The former number 42 was wearing, appropriately enough, a Jackie Robinson sweatshirt as he played. Ward wore the number in Washington in honor of Robinson.
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Ward said that the street hockey clinic reminded him of his roots and first picking up a stick when he was growing up in Toronto.
“I love ball hockey. This is where it starts, this is the grassroots of hockey. We all started off playing ball hockey. Nobody just hopped on the ice out of nowhere. This is great, facilities like this.” Ward swung around and pointed out the ball hockey rink’s nets and boards and blue rubber flooring with the Capitals logo emblazoned in the middle. “This is unbelievable for the neighborhood and for everybody out here.”
The ball hockey court was funded by the Capitals in 2015 as part of the NHL’s Winter Classic legacy project. The Capitals also provided free sticks to the participants of Saturday’s clinic.
Ward said he was extremely touched that the Capitals invited him to drop the ceremonial puck at Sunday’s game. On being told that he was a fan-favorite in DC, Ward smiled but shrugged. “I just see myself as a dude that played hockey and had a great time. I just came out here and had a great time,” said Ward.
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