Stepping onto the ice in front of a crowd of 18,945 for the first time at Rogers Arena, the only emotion Cole McWard felt was shock.
After being a defenseman for Ohio State just two days prior, Cole McWard wore a Vancouver Canucks jersey on April 6, making his NHL debut against the Chicago Blackhawks under lights much brighter than The Schottenstein Center.
“It’s what you dream about your whole life,” Cole McWard said. “That’ll be a memory for the rest of my life. It was cool getting to see all the fans and everything like that.”
Cole McWard’s journey was anything but traditional. As an undrafted player, the Saint Louis, Missouri native didn’t know what his future held, only that his chances at the NHL were uncertain. He weighed many options for the 2023-24 season, including returning to Ohio State.
On March 31, Cole McWard found the answer through the phone call of his life. He was at a Columbus-area Chipotle with his teammates and friends when he heard his phone ring.
The voice on the other end of the line was his agent Jeff Boston, who broke the news that the Canuck’s general manager Patrik Allvin had offered Cole McWard a two-year entry contract to join Vancouver for the remainder of the season.
“I was shocked to hear that,” Cole McWard said. “I couldn’t stop smiling on the phone. I was so excited. I had to leave to go call my parents.”
Cole McWard’s dad, Patrick McWard, was the first person he shared his news with.
“I was just ecstatic,” Patrick McWard said. “This is what he’s been dreaming about his whole life since he was 4 years old, starting hockey.”
The contract was finalized on March 31 and officially announced April 4.
What transpired next for Cole McWard was a race to get to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he arrived on April 2, just two days before his debut against Chicago.
Cole McWard’s short time at the Canucks facility has been an eye-opening experience, he said the available resources and higher level of play have allowed him to improve his game.
“The intensity is a big step up,” Cole McWard said. “They’re grown men you’re playing now. Going into every battle and every practice, you’ve got to be super dialed in.”
Cole McWard crafted his hockey skills with multiple single-A and double-AA hockey teams growing up. His first team, the Meramec Sharks, may have served as an omen for the future Vancouver Canuck.
“[They’re] like the same colors, the same kind of logo as the Canucks,” Cole McWard said. “It’s pretty crazy from when I was a kid to now wearing the same colors again.”
As Cole McWard spent his childhood and adolescence shooting pucks, his dad was often in his ear — being a longtime youth coach — giving him tips and advice. Patrick McWard kept it fun, but was also realistic and tempered expectations, often joking with the players’ parents, telling them, “Nobody in this room is going to play in the NHL.”
His own son rose above the competition, skating with the U.S. Hockey League Tri-City Storm during high school and committing to Ohio State. His dad was happy to see his son determined to prove him wrong.
“That was really when it stuck on me that he was a top-level player,” Patrick McWard said.
At Ohio State, Cole McWard made his presence felt on the ice, tallying 97 blocks with 37 total points made of 13 goals and 24 assists over his two seasons.
“I think he’s just a born leader,” Ohio State junior forward Patrick Guzzo said. “He just led by example. He was one of our strongest defensemen. On the ice, he would show his offensive skill, but at the same time, he knew how to play his position.”
While Cole McWard showcased his skills on the ice, Ohio State junior forward Michael Gildon said his attitude off the ice was just as impactful.
“He comes to the rink every day with a smile on his face,” Gildon said. “He was a horse for us on the back end and one of my best friends off the ice. I love the guy. Everybody loves him.”
On April 8, Cole McWard skated in his second NHL game against the Calgary Flames. Nine minutes into the game, he took a pass from Canucks forward Dakota Joshua and rifled a long wrist shot toward the goal.
After initial confusion over the puck’s location, Cole McWard was swarmed by jubilated teammates while his parents celebrated from 11 rows up for their son who had just made his first-ever NHL goal.