Unheralded Ray excelling with unmatched work ethic after making Griffins as a walk on

Joel Ray makes a move around the Alberta defence during a game earlier this season. The Innisfail, Alta. product made the Griffins as a walk on (Joel Kingston photo).
Joel Ray makes a move around the Alberta defence during a game earlier this season. The Innisfail, Alta. product made the Griffins as a walk on (Joel Kingston photo).

Jefferson Hagen
MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Joel Ray is living proof that good things come to those willing to bring their lunch-pail, hard hat and work boots to the job site.

The former Bonnyville Pontiacs captain in the Alberta Junior Hockey League enrolled at MacEwan University in 2020 and tried to make the Griffins men's hockey team as a walk on.

It quickly became apparent to the coaching staff that he was an essential piece for a team looking to carve out an identity of unmatched work ethic in their inaugural Canada West season.

"He came in and nothing was promised, but we had some conversations about an opportunity and a role I could see him filling," said head coach Mike Ringrose, who received a glowing reference about Ray from Pontiacs GM and coach Rick Swan.

"That was good enough for him. In a day and age where that's not often enough to get someone through the door, it was for Joel. He wanted to be a part of the program. He was able to take a chance on himself and earn a role. That's exactly what he did. He showed up right from the first day and was the hardest-working guy on the ice. He's really evolved into a critical energy guy for our team."

The Innisfail, Alta. product, who in enrolled in pre-requisite courses at MacEwan with a career goal of becoming a pharmacist, wouldn't be denied, even though the task of making the Griffins seemed daunting at first.

"Obviously with last year, nothing happening (with the Canada West season shut down), this year was a big camp for us," he explained, noting no was guaranteed a spot on the team. "I think we had just shy of 40 guys trying out. You're looking across the benches and seeing that many guys, you're not sure how it's going to play out.

"But I just tried to showcase my hard work ability, not try to be a player that I'm not. I think I just fit the mould of what they were looking for to try and build this program, and it worked out for me."

Ray has no Western Hockey League games to his credit, but there he is on a nightly basis often outworking guys with far more pedigree.

"I'm maybe not the most skilled guy on the team, not the flashiest, not going to make a toe drag on the blueline or anything like that," said the product of the Red Deer Chiefs AAA program. "But that's kind of been my identity as a player all throughout my career.

"I recognized early that my strength was my work ethic and my speed, so I just try to be that hard worker that give the guys some energy and wear down the other team, so that maybe some other guys can play their more skilled game and get us on the board."

The ultimate team player will lead the Griffins into a pair of weekend home games against Mount Royal University on Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (5 p.m., both Downtown Community Arena, Canada West TV presented by Co-op).

Joel Ray has an assist and 18 shots in 13 games for the Griffins this Canada West season, but it's his work ethic that defines him the most as a player (Joel Kingston photo).

Ray's tale is not too dissimilar to that of former Griffins captain Ryan Benn, who also made the team as a walk-on in 2013. They're different players – Benn went on to become the program's all-time career leading scorer (132 points in 141 games) – but they have similar qualities.

"Benny stepped in a time and era that he was able to step into an offensive role right away and he took it and ran with it," said Ringrose. "But a lot of the things that made Ryan Benn great are reflected in Joel Ray as well. Their tireless work ethic and willingness to sacrifice for the group and play with that team-first mentality all the time – those are definitely characteristics that they share."

They're also both at the heart of the program's identity that was established at the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference level when the Griffins won three-straight championships (2017-19). Ringrose noted Ray's work ethic sets the bar for a team needing to re-establish that identity at the Canada West level.

"When you think back to the teams we've had success with in the past, it's been a defining characteristic – an ability to play within structure, for sure, but more than that our competitiveness and willingness to work and earn it," he said. "Joel certainly displays the characteristics we look for when recruiting. Through and through, he's a member of our team that reflects the identity that we want as a group."

As the Griffins' inaugural CW season winds towards its conclusion with two more weekends of action after this one, the playoffs are a longshot, but the team is putting building blocks in place for future success.

"I think you can see in the games where we do have success that we're the harder working team and not really worried about those big flashy plays," said Ray. "We talked about it near Christmas – making our identity as a new program like this. That's definitely something that I'd like to see us do – be that hard-working, grinding team.

"I think we need to build off this year. Even though we haven't gotten the wins we wanted, we're building something up that's going to be special in the future."