Graduation: Mason Ward
Mason Ward’s earliest memories of hockey didn’t come on a backyard rink or small, frigid rinks in western Canada. Instead, they came in Jönköping, Sweden, the home of the Swedish Elite League’s HV71.
“For me it would have been when my dad was playing overseas,” Ward explained. “Hanging out in the locker room after practices, sometimes getting to skate around on the ice. Probably the first time I ever put on skates was in Sweden.”
Ward’s dad, Lance, had a 12-year professional career that saw him spend five seasons in Europe, four of them with HV71 in Sweden.
Unsurprisingly, Ward’s father played a huge part in helping Mason along his own hockey journey.
“He had a huge impact on me,” Ward said. “He was always my coach growing up, I train with him in the summers on the ice too. He’s been everywhere in my life. If I ever had a bad game he was always there to help because he’s such a knowledgeable guy.”
Lance also spent his four-year WHL career with the Red Deer Rebels, the team that Mason began his career with. Though Mason had a slightly different path to get there.
While standing at a towering 6’5’’ and nearly 220 pounds now, a few short years ago that wasn’t even a thought in Ward’s mind.
“I was actually a forward for a little bit while growing up,” he said. “It was around my first year of U18 that I started to hit a bit of a growth spurt. It seemed like every year I grew an inch until I finally stopped this past year. If you saw me back then you wouldn’t expect me to be as tall as I am now.”
Going undrafted in the 2017 WHL Prospects Draft, Ward had the opportunity to showcase his ability at Rebels prospects camp in the fall. Much to his own surprise, the Rebels decided to add him to their 50-man protected list following the camp.
“I didn’t have many expectations to be honest,” Ward said of getting drafted in 2017. “I knew I was a talented player, but my name wasn’t on any of the rankings or anything like that. I was praying that I’d see my name up there in the later rounds but it didn’t work out. I was obviously bummed, but I remember talking to a couple teams on the phone after the draft, including Red Deer. I decided to go there because my dad played there. I didn’t even know you could get listed to be honest, I didn’t know that was a thing. It was nice to hear that and just knowing that I had a shot to play in the WHL.”
Ward spent the next two seasons with the U18 Lloydminster Bobcats, going from six points to 17 in his second season before heading to Rebels main camp in 2019.
It was at the end of the camp that Ward was offered a roster spot on the 2019-20 Rebels, an opportunity he jumped at. As expected, the jump to the WHL was quite eye opening.
“It’s a big adjustment for sure,” Ward said. “You’re almost just a little star struck for the first few weeks. Getting to play in all these big rinks and in front of all these big crowds is pretty cool. We did our B.C. swing early in that season which was amazing.”
Ward’s rookie season in the WHL saw him skate in 61 games, scoring once and adding nine assists. His first career goal came in Brandon against his future team, but not in an ideal situation as it came with the Rebels trailing 5-1 late in the third period.
“I got the puck near the slot and closed my eyes and it went in,” he said. “I tried not to celebrate because we were losing by a lot. It was a bit of a weird one but it felt nice to get it out of the way.”
Red Deer famously housed their players inside the Peavey Mart Centrium during the shortened 20-21 season, and while Ward and his teammates were grateful to get the opportunity to play at the time, he admits living inside the rink was more challenging than anticipated.
“I was really excited to just know that we were going to have a season that year,” he said. “Red Deer put a lot of effort and money just to let us have a season, so we were all really grateful for that. Living in the rink was fun for the first little bit, but it definitely had its flaws.”
He added he knew players in the Regina hub, where the Broncos were, and checked in to see what their living situation was like.
The Rebels final game that season came on May 4 with Ward appearing in 21 of their 23 games, posting six points. Less than two weeks after the final game, Ward received a phone call letting him know he had been traded.
“I was at home and got a call from Brent (Sutter) letting me know I had been traded,” Ward said. “My dad was downstairs and heard me on the phone, he came upstairs and was like ‘did you just get traded?’. I wasn’t expecting it at all so it was definitely a weird feeling, but I was really excited to head to Brandon after the season they had in the bubble.”
Before he made his way to Manitoba, Ward had a detour to Detroit as he was invited to Red Wings rookie camp ahead of the 2021-22 WHL season.
While thrilled to have the opportunity, it unfortunately didn’t go as planned as he suffered an injury during the camp and had to stay in Detroit for over a month while recovering.
“I was really grateful for that experience, trying to showcase myself as best as I could,” Ward said. “You get the chance to play against some big names down there, including Sam McGinley when he was with St. Louis. I was grateful that they kept me there (after the injury). They have a great support staff and they took care of me, but it was tough living in a hotel for a month.”
Ward said the recovery process was made even more difficult because he couldn’t give his new teammates in Brandon a concrete date on when he would be able to join them for the 2021-22 season.
After missing the first three weeks of the season Ward made his Wheat Kings debut on October 22. Due to other injuries throughout the year he was limited to 41 games, but still posted a career high 14 points.
That led into the playoffs where the Wheat Kings matched up with Ward’s former team in the opening round.
“It was pretty cool getting to play in the playoffs, especially against my old team,” he said. “I had a lot of good friends on that team, it was a little hard to play against them and trying not to take it easy on them. It was a really hard series, a lot of ice bags after every game. We were pretty close to stealing the series from them.”
The deciding game 6 of that series went into triple overtime at Westoba Place, the first time since 2002 that the Wheat Kings had played a triple overtime game. Coincidentally enough, that also came against the Rebels.
Ward said it was a completely different experience than a normal game.
“It was a bit of a different style once we got into the second and third overtime,” he recalled. “We were basically just rolling two lines and so were they. We would just dump it in and change and then they would do the same. It was a weird style of game, but they got a fortunate bounce and took advantage of it.”
Rebels captain Jayden Grubbe scored at 7:41 of the third overtime to send Red Deer to the second round.
With the departure of two of Brandon’s top defencemen in Chad Nychuk and Vincent Iorio, Ward knew he would have the chance to step up and fill the void left by those two in 2022-23.
“I knew there would be lots of opportunity for me there, so I had a big summer and put a lot of expectations on myself,” Ward said. “I thought I had a solid start to the season and then I ended up getting traded, so there’s a lot of emotions there.”
The Broncos acquired Ward from Brandon on January 9 in exchange for Kayden Sadhra-Kang.
Ward knew what kind of role he was expected to play in Blue and Green.
“I’m a big physical guy so there’s no need to change that,” he said. “I think that’s kind of what the team was missing. I just wanted to stick to my role and be a team guy.”
The Broncos season ended sooner than anyone had hoped for with the 4-3 loss to the Tigers in the final game of the regular season, setting up a surreal feeling inside the locker room at Co-Op Place.
“It’s really tough,” he recalled. “We were working them in the first and then kind of let off in the second. It’s not a very good feeling and when that final buzzer goes it’s just a terrible feeling. It’s just quiet in the room.”
While the Broncos wanted that playoff experience for the core group of players who will return for 2023-24, Ward thinks the importance of their games over the final month of the season will still be impactful in the future.
“It’s huge. The way we played those last few weeks was pretty great,” he said. “If they can pick up where they left off to start next year, I think they’ll be a really tough team to beat.”
While Ward was only a Bronco for less than three months, he won’t soon forget his time in Southwest Saskatchewan.
“I was only there for a few months but I was really close with all the guys there,” he said. “It’s going to suck not seeing those guys every day, but we’ll keep in touch.”
Now graduated from the WHL, the next stage of Ward’s life isn’t decided yet, but he does know what he would like to do.
“My first choice would be to play pro somewhere,” he said. “I’m leaving the college route open in case that doesn’t work out. Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity there, because that’s my goal.”