It’s a cold winter day in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, and a 2-year-old Taylor Ward finds himself on a frozen creek behind the family’s house. His father, Dixon, stands by his side enjoying one of the limited off-days that are mixed into the 82-game NHL schedule.
A standout collegiate player at the University of North Dakota, Dixon went on to play 10 NHL seasons. That includes parts of five with the Buffalo Sabres, which is where he introduced his son to the game. Little did he know what was ahead for Taylor.
“We found a pair of skates that were a bunch of sizes too big for him and bundled him up,” Dixon said. “It was really cold, and he stood there for about 45 minutes until he was frozen top to bottom. He didn’t move more than six feet, but when we tried to pick him up and get him off the ice he cried and cried and cried.
“From there we knew that we were stuck with this kid that was going to love the game, and it just continued from there.”
A little over 20 years later, that same kid on the creek is 14 games into his junior season in Omaha. However, games 15 and 16 of the 2020-21 campaign will be a little bit of a family affair, as Ward and the Mavericks will take on North Dakota.
“Looking back when I was much younger, obviously my dad played at North Dakota, his buddies are the coaches, and we know a lot of people there, so I always wanted to play there because of that,” Taylor said. “When I grew up and realized there were lots of other great options to check out though, that’s kind of where Omaha came into the mix. I felt this was the best spot for me and looking back I can’t imagine playing anywhere else.”
Since arriving in Omaha, Ward has been one of the biggest threats in the Mavericks lineup. He has both the most goals (32) and points (65) on the current roster in 81 games played. As a freshman, he was named the NCHC Rookie of the Year. Last season, he had a team-high 16 goals and tied for the team lead in points with 27.
Throughout the first 14 games of his junior season, he’s put up a team-high seven goals. The most recent two coming this past Sunday night as the Mavericks knocked off Denver for the first time since three years before Ward stepped on campus.
As for Dixon, the Alberta native skated in 163 games at North Dakota. He’s the only player in program history to put up both 100 career goals and 100 assists, finishing his career with 110 and 109 respectively. He was inducted into the UND Hall of Fame in 2009.
He still remains in contact with several friends and former teammates that either still call Grand Forks home, or have UND ties. Former North Dakota forward Dixon Bowen was even named after him. Make no mistake, he’s a proud UND alum, but the focus has shifted to the career his son has been able to put together in Omaha.
“With any parent, the biggest thing is seeing their kid have success and be happy,” he said. “The on-ice success is great, but if you look at the big picture, his happiness, the experience he’s getting, and how much he loves playing in Omaha really means everything to me.”
Looking back, the bond is special between the two. Although this season has been tough, the family hasn’t been able to see Taylor since he left in late May with the pandemic and Canadian border closed, they have been able to stay in frequent contact through facetime and phone calls.
Part of what makes that bond so special is how much time they got to spend together both on and off the ice as Taylor grew up. Whether that meant in the role of coach, dad, or both.
“There are so many great memories that we share because I was around a lot,” Dixon said. “I was very fortunate that I got to see him play just about every game as a kid and he was part of our Okanagan Hockey Academy for four years, so I got to be close to him every day. That’s probably the part that is the most special to me is watching him develop through the years.”
However, that development wasn’t an overnight process.
“As a young player, he was really good,” Dixon said. “Highly-skilled, smooth skater, very smart, and he understood the game well. But when he got to about 13 or 14 all of the kids around him started to grow and develop physically, and he did not. He was very small, very undersized, and underdeveloped. Obviously he didn’t lose any of his skill, but the strength and size portion of it at that age was difficult.”
The 10-year NHL winger grew eight inches in one year as a 17-year-old kid in the 12th grade. It’s something that changed the entire trajectory of his eventual hockey career and Dixon joked he hopes genetics makes the same impact for his son.
“That changed my entire career,” he said. “I knew it was coming for Taylor too, but trying to convince a 14-year-old kid to be patient is not always the easiest thing. When he started junior hockey in Penticton, he was only 5’9 and 150 pounds. You look at him now, he’s 6’2 and a little over 200, so he’s figured out how to use that to his advantage. His body has changed dramatically and that has allowed him to use that skill and understanding of the game more effectively.”
In parts of four seasons with Penticton, Ward skated in 162 games. It’s less than an hour-long drive across the province from his hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia, where the Ward family still lives today. Dixon is still heavily involved in the game as he’s the Vice President and Director of the Okanagan Hockey Academy.
For most of his time in both Okanagan and Penticton, Ward was considered undersized and was a vastly unregarded NHL draft prospect. The chance to follow in dad’s footsteps at UND never materialized. At the same time it opened a door to play for Dean Blais at the time, who also coached his dad in Grand Forks, and eventually Mike Gabinet in Omaha.
As for Dixon, his main objective in the recruiting process was to be a sounding board. More than anything, he was going to support whatever decision was made.
“My role in the recruiting process was to really give him some feedback and be there to help,” Dixon said. “When you look at making a decision like that, I asked him what are the five most important things, and how can you narrow that down to figure out what is important? At the end of the day, him playing at the same school as dad played at certainly didn’t fit into that.
“The university itself, the facilities, coaching staff, the opportunity- those were all things that were important to him, and he found that in Omaha. I didn’t push him one way or the other, but once you make a decision, you have a commitment to make. He made the decision based on what he felt was best for him and that’s really the only part that mattered to me.”
Heading into Omaha, Taylor said he was comfortable and it felt like home right away. It was an easy transition process, which he thinks is part of the reason he was able to flourish right away.
“I wasn’t too familiar with UNO when I was going through the recruiting process honestly,” Taylor said. “When I was playing junior hockey in Penticton, there was a little bit of contact, but when I had the opportunity to come down here and check out the school and visit Omaha I was just blown away. The facilities, the campus, I met the coaches and most of the players- It sounds a little bit cliche, but I saw everything and it just felt like home.”
As it is for any kid with a parent that was a professional athlete, there’s a little extra spotlight that follows you on the ice. Especially at the Division I level. Taylor is one of two members of the Omaha roster (Chayse Primeau being the other, who he’s very close with) that has a dad that played in the NHL.
Having his dad have the NHL pedigree and being exposed to the game at such a young age has also been a huge blessing. Taylor attributes much of the success he’s had up to this point to his dad.
“Being around the rink a lot when my old man was playing, I was fortunate enough to be in a lot of locker rooms and hang out with a lot of my dad’s teammates,” he said. “I spent a lot of time at the rink and being in that environment my love for everything about the game grew. I loved playing, but getting to see everything behind the scenes and being in the locker room, it’s just been something I’ve always wanted to be a part of since.
“It’s an experience that not many people get to have at that age and I really got to see the level of professionalism and dedication it takes to be a hockey player at the highest level. Just to be familiar with that helped me growing up, but it also taught me the importance of working hard and being committed to the game.”
That commitment is something he’s tried to carry with him at every level. Taylor said his dad ingrained it into him at a young age and he still gets the same message to this day. ‘It’s very easy to look at some of the success you’ve had and expect that it’s going to continue to happen, and that’s not the case. It’s not the case in life, it’s certainly not the case in hockey, and you have to try and find a way to get better every day.’
It’s been a point of emphasis for him so far in Omaha.
“Thinking about the player I was when I came in here, I’ve grown in pretty much every aspect of the game,” Taylor said. “That’s a credit to our coaching staff. I think the biggest area of growth though was just understanding the importance of how much effort and commitment it takes to play at a high level and compete.
“Also having the right mindset. Not only how to approach every day at practice and in the gym, but also everything that comes outside of the rink. How you’re eating, resting and recovering, and I take a lot of pride in dedicating my time to become the best player I can.”
That compete-level goes back to the type of player he was growing up.
“When he was young, he was pretty competitive and he’d get fired up,” Dixon said with a laugh. “There were a few times where I was coaching that I had to kick him off my own bench and send him to the locker room because he was getting too aggressive with the other team.
“That’s just part of the type of player he is though and I’m proud of his perseverance over time with people that didn’t have confidence in him. He’s been able to keep going even if the belief system wasn’t there from a lot of people, simply because he wasn’t your quintessential stud at 14 years old. So his ability to have the success he’s had as an undrafted NHL player, but also do what he has so far at Omaha has been quite remarkable.”
His ‘old man’ will get a chance to watch him again this weekend against a school he’s all too familiar with. At the same time, the focus is all on No. 17 in white. Every game means something at the collegiate level, but the thing that means the most to Taylor is being able to make the man that introduced him to the game proud.
“I wouldn’t be where I am both as a player and a person without everything my dad has taught me over the years,” Taylor said. “Just being able to have that outlet and support system has been fantastic for myself and I’m very grateful and lucky to have that. But I’m also just very thankful I’ve been able to have my own path and make my own decisions, and he’s been a huge supporter throughout that entire process.”