Representing your country at a major international competition is a big deal for NHL players.
After being named to the U.S. Olympic team for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Washington Capitals defender John Carlson told Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, "It's obviously an honor to play for your country. Getting a chance to play for my country — I've only done it twice before. It's just a whole other level."
Carlson also represented Team USA at the 2010 World Junior Championships. All he did there was score the game-winning goal in overtime of the gold-medal game against host Canada in Saskatoon.
But not every NHL player is that lucky.
Such is the case with Joel Ward, a 33-year-old native of the Toronto area who has played seven seasons in the NHL, the last three for Washington. Ward has never represented his country in a major international competition, not even as a junior. That honor is usually reserved for elite prospects, such as Carlson.
Ward was not an elite prospect. In fact, he was not even drafted by an NHL team. Instead, he was signed by an AHL team in 2005. He received his first NHL contract the following year, when he was signed by the Minnesota Wild as a free agent. By then, he was already 25 years old.
Ward debuted with the Wild in 2006-07 and played 11 games, but he failed to establish himself as a professional. Case in point: Ward spent the entire 2007-08 season with the Wild's AHL affiliate. At the age of 27, Ward still only had 11 games of NHL experience.
But the Nashville Predators gave him a chance that summer, signing him before the 2008-09 season. Ward rewarded them over the next three seasons by scoring 40 goals and adding 58 assists for 98 points in 230 games.
His coming-out party was the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. Ward scored seven goals in 12 games, including an overtime game-winner in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinal against eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Vancouver.
Ward parlayed this postseason success into a four-year, $12 million contract with the Capitals that summer, according to CapGeek.com.
But Ward did not live up to the big contract at first. During the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, Ward failed to score at least 10 goals for the first two times since he became an NHL regular in 2008-09.
He did continue to produce in the playoffs, however. Ward scored the most memorable goal of his career in 2012 with another game-winner in overtime, this time clinching a series win for the Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal by knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in their own barn.
But he continued to be ignored by Team Canada for any World Championships.
That finally changed this season, and it corresponded with a career year with the Washington Capitals. The following table illustrates how Ward's 2013-14 season surpassed his 82-game averages as well as his career highs from his previous six seasons:
|Joel Ward: 2013-14 Stats vs. Career Highs, 82-Game Averages|
As a result, Joel Ward was one of the first players selected to Team Canada for the 2014 IIHF World Championships in Belarus from May 9-25, according to Team Canada's website. He will be joined by fellow Washington Capitals forwards Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera.
Ward's addition to the Canadian World Championship team enhances what has already been a career year.
But Ward can do more than simply add an entry to his hockey resume. He can use this experience to learn how to win hockey games in a high-pressure tournament setting.
You see, Canada takes the World Championships very seriously. That should come as no surprise, since the sport of ice hockey is involved.
All joking aside, there is significant pressure on Canada to win gold in Belarus this May, or at least to medal. Lucas Aykroyd of IIHF.com explains:
The Canadians haven't won Worlds gold since 2007 and haven't medaled since 2009's silver. Every other top nation – Russia, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, U.S., and the Czech Republic – has won at least one medal from 2010 onward. Should that be acceptable to Canada?
So for Ward, playing for his country in the World Championships will not just be another leisurely two weeks or so during the course of his summer vacation. It will be an intense tournament environment played against some of the best players in the world with an expectation of team success. In other words, not unlike the NHL postseason.
Therefore, Ward can use the lessons he learns from this invaluable experience and apply them the next time he makes the Stanley Cup playoffs with the Washington Capitals, hopefully next season. Before you know it, Ward may quickly replace 2013-14 as the best season of his NHL career.
Note: All statistics courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.