By Tony James
As an England and GB hockey international with over 30 caps, Sam Ward’s job is to score goals - even though at one time they were costing him £50 each.
“Three years ago, a good friend of mine and former teammate was diagnosed with a form of leukemia,” Ward explains. “Thankfully, he is now in remission, but money is urgently needed for blood cancer research and I felt I should do something.”
What he did was to pay £50 out of his own pocket every time he scored an international or Premier League goal. Word got about in the close knit hockey family and soon friends and supporters were pledging another £250 every time Ward found the net for his high flying Holcombe team.
“It was a win-win situation,” Ward says. “Holcombe won the hockey Premier League and in nine months Bloodwise, a blood cancer research charity, benefitted by over £13,000. The money from my goals couldn’t have gone to a better cause.”
On and off-pitch challenges
Conscious of his good fortune in being in prime health, Ward goes out of his way to help those who aren’t. He has cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats for Macmillan Cancer Support and is currently looking for a new charity challenge.
In fact, challenges on and off the pitch have long been an integral part of Ward’s sporting life. For instance, he reached hockey’s highest level not by the usual university path, but by working in a Volkswagen car dealership in Loughborough.
“I started there when I was 17, doing a bit of selling and working in their fleet department,” Ward says. “It was very hard to train as much as you should to reach the top level. It was just a case of cracking on and doing as much as you could in club hockey, having not played for a university.
“It was tough working long days and then going training. I did it the hard way - I didn’t play in any junior international tournaments. I went to a few training camps and after that it was just playing club hockey for the next two years, before I was offered a contract for the England squad.”
Move to Holcombe
Leaving his first club, Beeston, and moving to the Holcombe club in Kent was another major gamble. At that time, Holcombe were not league contenders, but with an influx of England stars, they are now.
“What they have done is incredible,” Ward says. Modesty forbids him to say he’s had a lot to do with the transformation.
“They were an unfashionable side, but then they managed to pull a fantastic team together. A lot of people couldn’t believe how we’ve changed. We finished top of the Premier League and we have qualified for next year’s Euro Hockey League. I haven’t looked back and I’m enjoying every minute.
“There’s a pressure to perform, as a squad like ours is always going to draw attention from outside, but we’re experienced and we try to get on with our jobs and play well as a team to get results.”
Now aiming for a place in the Great Britain Olympic team for Rio, Ward has the support of Grays International, whose sales and marketing director, Richard Gray, says: “We believe he has both the talent and tenacity to succeed in this increasingly demanding sport.
“We are fully committed to giving him the best equipment with which to deliver in Rio and beyond.”
The world’s longest established hockey brand, Grays International is characterised by its famous orange flash. The brand has innovated hockey stick technology from the beginning of the modern game.
Founded in 1855 by rackets champion HJ Gray, the company claims more international hockey players use Grays equipment than any other brand.
Ward certainly knows what he wants: “I like a heavy stick that’s nice and strong, but with a soft feel, so I use a 90 per cent carbon stick with a damping mechanism in the handle.
“Enormous strides have been made in equipment technology. The Grays stick I’m using fits my requirements exactly. The key to the equipment I use is that it allows me to play hockey to the very best of my ability and Grays sticks and equipment fit the bill perfectly.
“We train every day and play games at the weekend, so sticks have to put up with some punishment - and Grays can cope with that.”
Growing up in a Leicestershire village near Loughborough, there were hockey sticks in the house for as long as Ward can remember: “Apparently, I showed an interest in the game before I was four and always had a stick in my hand.
“I would watch my parents play. They were good club players and my dad did a lot of coaching. I would go along with him and hit a ball on the side. It all went from there.
“Leicester ladies’ hockey club had a mixed junior section called the Banana Bunch and I played for them from six until nine. But when we didn’t have enough boys for a team, I joined Beeston and played there until I went to work at 21.”
Playing for England
Ward watched England play when he was younger. “When I was about 18, I used to say I would love to play for England, but I never dreamed it would be achievable,” he adds.
In fact, it took Ward 19 years from that first childhood ambition to pulling on an England shirt for the first time. He remembers: “The feeling was incredible. I can’t describe what it meant to be out there singing the national anthem. The shivers going down my spine was a sensation I won’t forget.
“Nor have I forgotten the people who helped me and what it means to young sports people to be given a chance. So I have a strong focus on helping and inspiring the next generation of the game to show them how hard work and a tough mentality pays off.
“You do your best, chase your dream and it’s turned out well for me. Hopefully, the dream will include playing in the Olympics and getting a medal.”
Ward became one of England’s centrally contracted players in September 2014 and scored twice on his senior international debut against world champions Australia three months later.
“Since joining the England programme, there’s been a big change in me mentally and physically,” he says. “There’s been a lot of hard work in the gym - my shape was far different when I first started.
“If you’re carrying an extra seven or eight kilos, it’s a lot more to have to move around the pitch, so losing that has helped increase my speed, footwork and reactions.”
At 26 and at the top of his game, retirement is hopefully a long way ahead, but Ward, a canny Midlander, has already had thoughts about that distant day: “I will probably go back into the car industry.
“I loved my job with Volkswagen and giving it up for hockey was a big gamble, not knowing if you would make the grade as a professional sportsman.”
Some 30 England and GB caps later, we all know the answer to that.
Proudest moment: joining the England centralised programme.
Biggest regret: not working harder at a young age.
Greatest influence: my family.
Sporting hero: cricketer Ian Bell.
Best moment: scoring two goals on debut for England against Australia.
Worst moment: missing a shuffle in the EuroHockey Championship semi-final against Germany.
Remaining ambition: to succeed at multiple Olympics and world cups.
Hardest opponents: any of the world’s top three seeds.