The members of the New York chapter of the Friends of Joel Ward are linked by the bond of ... roller hockey.
At Hot Skates, an old-school roller rink in the town of Lynbrook -- just a few minutes from the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island -- some pictures and the jersey of Ward adorn the walls. Young children at birthday parties and teenagers on dates roll past, think it's neat that an NHLer is connected to their rink, but don't give any further thought.
But Joel Ward is from Toronto, not New York. He has never lived on Long Island for more than two days at a time.
"That's true," said Ward. "But this area, that rink and, most important, those people mean a lot to me."
Those people are Jeff and Rick Bernstein, whose father built Hot Skates in 1980 and whose family has operated the roller rink ever since. When the Bernsteins were putting together a roller hockey team in 2003 to compete in some of the country's biggest tournaments, they reached out to contacts at Mission Hockey to invite some of the top players from the U.S. and Canada.
"We were looking for good players, of course," said Rick Bernstein, who managed the team, "but also guys that would have a lot of fun with it."
There were three Canadian recruits, including a 22-year-old playing at the University of Prince Edward Island named Joel Ward. The Hot Skates crew practiced on Long Island whenever they had the chance and competed in the nationals in Florida, advancing to the semifinals in 2005.
"Just playing hockey and having a lot of fun," recalled Ward. "Whether it was ice or roller, I was just happy to be playing competitive hockey and having a blast doing it."
Soon after he played roller hockey in Florida for the Hot Skates team in 2005, Ward received a tryout with the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League. He ended up that season playing a regular shift with the Houston Aeroes of the American Hockey League and made his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild in 2007. He's now in his second season with Nashville, where he makes $1.5 million a year playing the game he loves on ice.
And he never forgets his roller hockey buddies on Long Island. "If the Preds are making a rare visit to New York," said Ward. "I know my friends are going to be there."
Rick and Jeff Bernstein and the Hot Skates gang celebrated wildly when Ward scored on Biron to give Nashville a 2-1 lead. As a huge Islanders fan, Rick saw the night as near-perfect: "Joel played great and scored a goal, the Preds got a point and the Isles won in a shootout."
"Joel is proof that good things happen to good people," said Jeff Bernstein.
Said Ward: "Roller hockey helped me stay in shape in the summer and it helped my game a lot. But the best part was making friends that I'll have for a lifetime."