ECHL

Joel Ward retires from hockey, reflects on 726 unlikely NHL games

Capping an unlikely playing career, Joel Ward announced his retirement from hockey on Monday. Ward shared the news in a compelling piece at The Players’ Tribune.

Ward, 39, titled that announcement “726.” That represents the number of regular season games Ward played with the Wild, Predators, Capitals, and Sharks. For a lightly scoring player even at the University of Prince Edward Island — a player who went undrafted — Ward realizes how unlikely his journey was.

While Ward received a tryout with the Canadiens before 2018-19, he last enjoyed NHL action with the Sharks in 2017-18. That also represents his last hockey run, as Ward didn’t go overseas.

In retrospect, retiring this way ended up feeling fitting for Ward.

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.

Ward truly took an unlikely path to the NHL, going from the University of Prince Edward Island, jumping suddenly from the ECHL to the AHL, and then making a lasting impact at the highest level. As Ward notes, he even played for Team Canada during the 2014 world championships.

Ward retires from hockey, 2014 world championships
(Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

Ward shares details from his career as he retires

Of course, Ward didn’t just play in 726 regular-season games. He also appeared in 83 playoff contests, managing a memorable playoff overtime goal against the Bruins while he was with the Capitals in 2012.

Ward fondly recalls “[Alex Ovechkin], with the biggest smile on his face, flying at me full speed,” after Ward scored the goal, which you can watch in the video above this post’s headline. Ward focused on that memory, rather than the unfortunate, racist reaction from some fans after it.

Despite admittedly not being a smooth skater, a fighter, or a grinder, Ward managed to find a place in the NHL. He scored 133 goals and 304 points during those 726 games, including a 24-goal, 49-point season with the Capitals (2013-14) and a 21-goal, 43-points campaign with the Sharks (2015-16). Ward managed pretty strong playoff numbers, too (22 goals, 52 points), even if he eschewed labels like “clutch.”

Ward picks the Sharks locker room as his favorite, even if memories of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final still sting him today.

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.

Ward’s Players’ Tribune retirement piece is worth your time, particularly if you enjoyed any of his 726 regular-season games and 83 postseason appearances.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Players, fans get creative to raise funds in hockey minors

More than a month after the ECHL canceled the rest of its season, minor league hockey players are still hoping to get some financial help.

A relief fund set up by the league and Professional Hockey Players Association has $270,000 so far, about a third of the total goal. PHPA executive director Larry Landon estimates $850,000 is needed to cover paychecks from three lost weeks of the season. He hopes money can be sent to players beginning next week.

”We’ve got to get it out to the players that truly do need it as fast as we can,” Landon said. ”It’ll be a huge undertaking to get there, but if we can get them what they lost in the regular season, at least it helps them.”

With something of a shortfall and concerns growing about starting next season, players, fans and teams are starting to get creative. One fan has raised $7,000 by auctioning off memorabilia, and South Carolina goaltender Parker Milner hopes a quarantine concert brings awareness to the situation as well as some extra funds.

Longtime Toledo Walleye fan Dennis Seymour hopes to raise a total of $10,000 for the ECHL-PHPA COVID-19 Relief Fund and already bought a couple of $5 tickets for the Pregame Skate Quarantine Concert that will be live-streamed Saturday night. The effort is being spearheaded by Milner and Boston College teammate Brian Dumoulin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, with possible appearances from retired goaltender Mike McKenna, Kyle Palmieri of the New Jersey Devils and Kevin Hayes of the Philadelphia Flyers.

While the NHL and other pro sports leagues are considering returning without fans, that kind of business model doesn’t work for minor league hockey. Landon said he’s lost sleep worrying about the future.

”If there’s no group gatherings, how are we playing?” Landon said. ”Your sponsors aren’t going to be sponsors if there’s no people in the stands. You need people in the stands.”

The immediate concern is trying to pay players for lost wages, but the uncertainty is unsettling among those who make an average of $700-$725 a week. Milner hoped Saturday’s concert is just the start of publicizing what players are up against.

”Hopefully other guys will keep coming up with some stuff, but just finding cool ways to continue to talk about it,” Milner said. ”Smaller little events like this or somebody just throwing in $10. I think down the line a lot of those smaller investments, especially as the summer progresses, will be the thing that really fuels this thing.”

Hockey players in the minors face uncertainty, job fears

Tim Harrison made the long drive from South Carolina to his home just south of Boston with a lot on his mind.

The ECHL season had just been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the 26-year-old wondered if he’d need to dig for oysters on the beach or do odd jobs around the neighborhood to make ends meet. He and many fellow minor hockey league players are struggling and don’t know how they will afford to get to next season.

“I’m obviously going to try my best to do what I can to whip up some money, but it might take a couple weeks before I can even do that,” Harrison said. “Just not knowing what’s going to happen and how I’m going to survive the next couple months is probably the biggest worry.”

The 26-team ECHL – a developmental pro league just below the American Hockey League – canceled its season in mid-March, three weeks before the playoffs. The final paychecks came March 16, a significant blow to more than 400 players on ECHL-only contracts who make an average of $700-725 per week, less than $3,000 per month.

Players on NHL deals continue to be paid while the season is suspended, but ECHL teams couldn’t afford to follow the same path. Hockey players in the minors face an uncertain future and even offseason jobs could be hard to come by.

“I kind of figured that I’d be able to just get maybe a labor or summer job at the end of the season,” said 29-year-old forward James Henry, a veteran of seven ECHL seasons. “With how everything’s going and everything being closed, that seems like a more difficult job to obtain right now.”

Harrison and South Carolina Stingrays teammate Tom Parisi thought they’d be preparing for a playoff run that would have meant bonus checks deep into the spring. Instead, Parisi – who left hockey briefly to take a finance job – is considering hanging up his skates for good.

“Honestly, I think everything’s on the table,” Parisi said.

He’s not alone. Blake Kessel, brother of Arizona Coyotes winger Phil Kessel and Olympic gold-medal-winning forward Amanda Kessel, has bounced around to five different leagues and wondered if this season would be his last at age 30.

“As you get a little older, if you’re still in the (ECHL) obviously you’re not making a ton of money,” Kessel said. “Some guys might have to just retire and take a more stable job, if they can find it.”

Professional Hockey Players Association executive director Larry Landon said the organization will contribute the first $200,000 into the COVID-19 ECHL Players Relief Fund, which launched Wednesday.

“The creation of this fund is one of the next steps in coming together to help our players that are in the most need at this time,” ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin said.

Landon knows the fund won’t be able to give players 100% of what they would have earned, but hopes members look into the career-enhancement program for ideas on life beyond the sport.

Riley Weselowski, a 35-year-old defenseman for Wichita, counts himself fortunate that his wife has a full-time job in the medical field and the couple has enough savings to last a couple of months. Many players make money over the summer by running or helping out at hockey camps, but those are in doubt during the pandemic.

“If this really drags on and we start looking into June, July, we’re going to be hurt obviously a lot worse,” Weselowski said. “If it ever did come to that and it drags out that long, I think we’ll have much bigger problems than just worrying about that and obviously the country being in a pretty bad spot if it does drag out that long.”

ECHL players are quick to say there are others around the world with bigger problems. They are grateful to have health care paid for through June 30. And there are efforts underway to help.

“A lot of us have been talking and trying to continue to find ways to help them out,” 32-year-old AHL forward Brett Sutter said. “Guys there have families, and there’s how they make a living chasing their dreams.”

Landon said some players are literally hurting because they can’t get an elective surgery, such as repairing a torn labrum. He is also concerned about what the ECHL might look like when it returns, a sentiment a league spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on.

“I think we had some teams on the edge of the cliff,” Landon said “It’s important for us to keep that in place for the players and the teams that actually endure this pandemic, and hopefully we salvage as many teams as possible for next year where the guys need to work.”

PHT Morning Skate: Eichel, Skinner make donations; feel-good stories for NHL teams

NHL News
Getty
Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Buffalo Sabres forwards Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner are donating to the COVID-19 fight. (NHL.com)

• Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett laments the team’s lost progress during season pause. (Sportsnet)

• PHPA and ECHL announce relief fund for ECHL players. (ECHL)

• The feel-good stories of the season for all 31 NHL teams. (ESPN)

• Who rules the NHL’s 3-on-3 format? (TSN)

• Does Quinn Hughes beat out Cale Makar for the Rookie of the Year award? (Vancouver Is Awesome)

• Florida Panthers not letting COVID-19 dictate the future. (Panther Parkway)

• Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk is awaiting the next step in his rehabilitation process. (NHL.com)

• The epic decline of fighting in the NHL. (NHL To Seattle)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

QMJHL latest to cancel its season due to coronavirus

QMJHL latest to cancel season coronavirus
via QMJHL

The QMJHL became the latest hockey league to cancel the remainder of its 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

March 21 was the planned end date of the QMJHL regular season, while the league’s draft lottery had initially been scheduled for March 25. The draft lottery has been postponed while remaining games were canceled. The QMJHL laid out its draft lottery rules as part of its statement.

Along with several European leagues, the ECHL announced its cancellation on Saturday.

As you can see in the list of links at the bottom of this post, the NHL pushed back the possible resumption of the 2019-20 season/start of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs to May. And, of course, that could change. The AHL made a similar announcement.

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

UPDATE:

MORE:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.