This week’s interview is with Quebec Tigres D Ward Jones.
SHL Digest: This week, we’re talking to one of the SHL’s toughest and most interesting players, Ward Jones. Ward, thanks for speaking with us.
WJ: I’m glad for the opportunity.
SHLD: You shocked everyone around the league this week when you announced that you intend to retire. The announcement seemed to come from out of the blue. You’re only 29, in the prime of your career. You’re in good shape, and you’re putting up solid numbers. How did you make the decision to walk away?
WJ: I started thinking about it just before the All-Star break, when I got injured. I wound up being out for over a month, which is longer than I’ve ever been sidelined since I started in the game. Then I thought about it some more after I got hurt again in the last couple weeks. It got me thinking about what’s next, what I want to do with the next chapter of my life. And I came up with an idea, and the more people I talked to and the longer I thought about it, I realized I didn’t want to wait to get started.
SHLD: What’s the idea?
WJ: I want to develop a foundation that will provide and support youth hockey programs for kids in the inner cities. Basically, I want to help build a pipeline for getting black and minority kids involved in the game.
SHLD: You grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Did this idea come from your own experience?
WJ: Yeah. I mean, hockey is a great sport, but if you’re a poor kid in the inner city, it’s really hard to get involved. If there hadn’t been a hockey program at the community center in my neighborhood growing up, I might never have found the sport. And if there hadn’t been coaches to encourage me and help me develop, and if there hadn’t been money available to provide me with skates and equipment, I never could have stuck with it. Basically, a lot of lucky things had to go right for me to even have a shot at playing pro hockey. So I want to give back, and give other kids like me a chance to do what I did.
SHLD: That’s a noble vision! What made you decide you wanted to start your own foundation, instead of partnering with an existing group?
WJ: Well, in the past I’ve worked with The Sports Shed, which provides gear for youth teams that can’t afford it. It’s a great program, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. If you’re going to really support youth hockey in the inner cities, you need to build or keep up rinks. You need to find coaches. You need to pay for uniforms and equipment. You need to pay for travel. There are great programs in a few cities, but they’re all working on their own, and they’re all desperate for cash. That’s where I can help.
SHLD: But you could start building your foundation while you’re continuing to play. And you could keep playing for several more seasons. Why leave now?
WJ: A couple of reasons. For one thing, the league is getting younger and faster. I’m a lot of things, but “fast” ain’t one of ‘em. I’m the kind of guy who wants to play every day, and who knows how long I’m able to do that? I barely got to play more than half the season this year [Jones appeared in 37 games]. But more importantly, I’m the kind of guy that when I’m doing something, I put my whole heart and soul into it. A project like this, if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to do it all the way. And I don’t want to wait. It’s too important.
SHLD: You’ve had to deal with racism throughout your career, whether it’s getting taunted by fans in Hershey or getting jokingly called a gangster by a radio announcer. Did that factor into your decision at all?
WJ: I definitely thought about that. If I quit now, am I letting the racists win? But then I thought of it a different way. I’m not going to make the Hall of Fame, and no one’s retiring my number. Five years after I leave, no one’s going to remember me. But if I can get this foundation going, and down the road five or ten or a hundred black kids wind up playing in the league thanks to my foundation? That’s the legacy I want more than anything.
SHLD: You’ve been a strong voice for diversity and inclusion throughout your career. Will you remain involved in those efforts within the SHL now that you’re no longer active?
WJ: You better believe it. When I made my announcement, the Commissioner’s office called and offered me a job with the league to work on improving diversity. I had to turn it down, because I’m focused on the foundation, but I’m still going to speak out. Y’all ain’t getting rid of me that easy.
SHLD: Glad to hear it! Well, thank you, Ward, for a very thoughtful interview. And here’s hoping that your foundation is a success.
WJ: Thanks a lot. I’ll keep everybody posted.