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THE VERDICT: Ward brings experience, character

Team Historian Bob Verdi writes about Cam Ward, who signed a one-year deal with the Blackhawks in free agency

by Bob Verdi / Team Historian

On Sunday, as free agent signings spread throughout the National Hockey League, the Blackhawks annexed a wealth of experience, character and jewelry.

Chris Kunitz, a versatile forward, has been on four Stanley Cup champions. He, his family and their safe deposit box are excited about the Blackhawks. Wife Maureen is from Schaumburg. He's 38, envisioning a fifth ring for his thumb.

Video: Cam Ward on signing with Chicago, backing up Crawford

But a year before Kunitz first ran the table with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, Cam Ward stunned the industry by backstopping the upstart Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup as a rookie. He won 15 games with a tiny goals-against average of 2.14 and was so impregnable that he received the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable individual in the playoffs.

We could go on and on about Ward's distinguished tenure in Carolina, ­and will. But not before rewinding the evening of Dec. 26, 2011, Boxing Day for this native Canadian and a moment to remember. He doesn't shoot… he scores!!

"Got the plaque right here in the house," said Ward from Raleigh after agreeing to a one-year contract with the Blackhawks. "We were home against the New Jersey Devils. Late in the game, they pulled their goalie. I made a save and the rebound went to Ilya Kovalchuk in the corner. He made a pass back to the point, but there was nobody there. The puck went all the way into their net. I was the last guy to touch it, so I got credit for the goal."

At the time, Ward was just the tenth NHL goalie to do so. But that feels like ancient history now for the 34-year-old veteran who was a rock for a relatively young franchise in uncharted hockey territory and now becomes the presumptive backup to Corey Crawford in an Original Six hotbed where empty seats at the United Center are seen only on nights when there is no game.

"I am humbled and feel very fortunate," said Ward. "To play 13 seasons in one place that I now call home is unusual.

I was looking at Lee Stempniak, a teammate here last year. We came into the NHL at the same time, and he's been on nine different teams. So I've been very lucky. We had a bunch of guys from Chicago on the Hurricanes. Scott Darling, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Bryan Bickell, Joakim Nordstrom, and Andrew Ladd back a little ways. They all said the same thing. Great organization, at the top of the list of places to play.

"I've gotten messages from Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, which is nice. Makes me feel welcome. But I already know about that building. Give you an example: Last March when we were in there for the only time, 'Darls' started for us and played well. The visiting bench there is too small for the backup goalie to sit, so I took in the game from the locker room.

"But before that, I came out for the National Anthem. I've never seen a place where all of our staff, equipment guys, strength coaches and video people do the same thing. They all want to be there out front for the National Anthem. If you think - as a team from the Eastern Conference that only makes one trip to Chicago - that kind of atmosphere with 20,000 people doesn't get you fired up… well, it does. Something you have to witness."

As a lad born in Saskatoon, the Original Six mantle meant a lot to Ward. But so did the Edmonton Oilers, whom he watched often with his dad. Lo and behold, two years after toiling with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, Ward, a 25th overall draft selection by the Hurricanes, faced the Oilers in the Final.

"I didn't know much about Carolina, except they had been in the Final the year they picked me, 2002," said Ward. "And I didn't have great expectations for my rookie year, 2006, other than hoping to make the team. They had a veteran goalie, Martin Gerber. I made my NHL debut in October, when he got hurt, and got my first start a couple nights later. But Gerber was no. 1, and I played 28 games, again not feeling any real pressure."

Video: Stan Bowman on Sunday signings

In the opening round of the playoffs, the Hurricanes lost twice at home to the Montreal Canadiens. Then, Head Coach Pierre Laviolette tapped the kid to replace Gerber.

"So I start my playoff career in Montreal," Ward said. "Talk about history."

He then crafted some of his own. The Canadiens, scoring only five goals, lost four straight. Ward then outdueled Martin Brodeur, one of his heroes, and the Hurricanes ousted the Devils. Ward then anchored a seven-game survival against the Buffalo Sabres. With a 3-1 conquest of Edmonton in Game 7 of the Final, the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup and Ward became the first rookie goalie to receive the Conn Smythe since 1987.

 "I wish we could have been more successful in subsequent years," mused Ward. "Maybe I was too young in 2006 to realize how hard it is to win a Cup and to even make the playoffs. But it is. There are a lot of ups and downs."

Ward posted a 23-14-4 mark with a 2.73 goals against average last season, a down one for the Hurricanes. Under new leadership, they opted to go in a different direction. Now, so is Ward, who seems to be an abnormally normal soul given his occupation.

"I guess goalies have that rap of being weird," he said. "Only thing I really did maybe was Pepto Bismol as a kid. That was my pregame meal. Don't do that anymore. No great superstitions. Just anxious for Chicago. My wife Cody just went to the mall to find a Blackhawks' hat for our son, Nolan. No luck. Not much Chicago gear in Carolina. I'm sure there'll be plenty there.

"Can't wait to put on that famous jersey."

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