- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Joel Ward took a step into Verizon Center on Tuesday morning and found himself on the opposite side of the building.

Four years earlier, Ward learned the path from the players’ parking area to the Washington Capitals’ dressing room. Pass through the green-thatched fence to the elevator, hang a left once it stops on the event level and proceed beyond the wood paneling to the cinder-block walls striped in red and blue.

This time was different. Standing in the far garage, Ward had to follow the lead of San Jose Sharks teammate Tomas Hertl to the visitors’ dressing room. Even then, ongoing renovations to the lower level of the arena offset any semblance of familiarity.

“I didn’t even know how to get in, to be honest,” Ward said, smiling. “I had to slip through security.”

As for slipping into Washington, that was another matter. Once the Sharks concluded their morning skate, preparing for that night’s game against the Capitals, Ward encountered a half-dozen reporters, all the while fielding barbs from teammates about his local celebrity.

“Let me get out of your way here,” right wing Tommy Wingels, who had been assigned an adjacent stall, teasingly told Ward. “Give me just 30 seconds.”

Ward reached renown during his four seasons with the Capitals, with an overtime goal in Game 7 of a playoff series against the Boston Bruins his first year beginning a pattern of individual postseason success.

A late-bloomer by hockey standards, the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Ward had blossomed into a productive player in Washington, a versatile right wing who felt at home on the third line but could add a touch of grit elsewhere. He played a valuable role on both special teams units and was well-liked by his teammates, who respected his persistence and appreciated his personality.

“One of those guys who you can’t help but not support,” said left wing Jason Chimera, who developed a close friendship with Ward during their tenure with the Capitals. “On the ice, he’s as quality a player as anyone, but off the ice, he’s an even better person.”

Ward knew as last offseason drew to a close that his time in Washington was nearing its end. A tight salary cap influenced the Capitals’ decisions, and Ward, seeking what would likely be one last high-value contract at age 34, understood it would come elsewhere.

In San Jose, coach Peter DeBoer determined that five-on-five scoring and the penalty kill were his new team’s greatest deficiencies. He was also concerned by the dynamic in the locker room; after the Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, center Logan Couture described the relationship between players as “not great.”

DeBoer, familiar with Ward dating back to his days coaching in Canada’s junior leagues, figured the right wing could address many of San Jose’s needs. On July 3, two days after Ward’s contract with the Capitals expired, the Sharks signed him to a three-year, $9.825 million contract.

“He’s willing to go to dirty areas and willing to do dirty work on the defensive side of the puck,” DeBoer said Tuesday. “Those were all the boxes that I wanted checked for what we needed to improve on, and it was all in one package with one guy there, so you know, he was right at the top of our list of guys. When I spoke to him, it was just about how I saw he would fit and how important I thought he would be to our group.”

When training camp opened last month, Ward found himself nestled on the second line with Couture and left wing Patrick Marleau. He’s seen time on both special teams units, and on Saturday, he picked up his first two points when he assisted on both goals in the Sharks’ 2-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks.

Still, the acclimation is an ongoing process. Ward arrived in San Jose not long before training camp started, giving him just enough time to find a place to live. After spending nearly his entire life on the East Coast, he joked that California is “pretty chill, laid back.” He’s been tricked by the time zones, he’s still looking for a reliable dry cleaner and his haircuts have been “hit or miss.”

Playing hockey, then, is the easy part — that is, once he can get to the rink.

“It’s been a good fit so far,” Ward said. “We have a good group here. I’m glad that I made that choice. We got off to a pretty good start so far, [and] the system kind of fits me as well … which is very helpful.”

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