Cam Ward had more to digest than any player on the Carolina Hurricanes’ roster last season. He was the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner, took over in net for the defending Stanley Cup champions and got married.
That’s a lot to handle for a 12-year veteran, let alone a 22-year-old.
Despite a high maturity level for his age, it was at times a bit daunting for Ward. By his own admission, he had an average season in his first full-time crack as an NHL starter, going 30-21-6 with a 2.93 goals against average -- stats that didn’t put him among the league leaders. To make matters worse, the promise of returning to defend the Cup was dashed when the Canes failed to make the playoffs.
“It is fair to say that I have seen the highs and seen the lows,” Ward said as training camp prepares to open Friday in Raleigh. “I hope I’m better because of it. One thing is you can’t change the past. All you can do is take care of the present and the future.”
|| David Droschak |
After last season, the Canes approached Ward about his diet and body fat, asking him to get in better shape and lose some weight. To do so, Ward would have to remain in Raleigh
for most of the summer and work side-by-side with Canes fitness guru Pete Friesen.
“I was with him that day, when he was told what the program was, and he was crying to me that he couldn’t do it,” captain Rod Brind’Amour said. “I told him to just try it, just stick to it because they have a plan, there is a method to this. I think it was tough for him at the start but now he’s seen what it has done for him.”
Ward has transformed his body, going from 200 pounds to 177 in a matter of a few months.
“I would like to say I wasn’t tired last year at the end of the season and I felt like I was in OK shape, but now that I’ve lost some weight I realize how good I feel now. It’s going to make a big difference,” said Ward, who played in 60 of 82 games last season.
“You think when you’re one of the guys out of shape it’s all about exercise,” added Ward. “You can do all the exercise you want but if you’re not going to eat right it’s not going to change anything. We lowered my workout regiment and picked up nutrition and that’s when I started to see the real big results.”
For the first two weeks of the program, Ward said it was solid protein and no carbs, and “a lot of greens.”
“If you ask my wife I was a little bit grumpy and a little bit tired throughout the day because I didn’t have any carbs in my body, you don’t have any energy,” Ward said. “Now, getting closer to camp we’ve starting to incorporate the good carbs to keep my energy level up.”
Players like Brind’Amour, who have been working out for several weeks, have already seen a difference with Ward’s play on the ice.
“He’s quicker, he gets post-to-post, all the sudden he’s there,” said Brind’Amour. “That’s the benefit of losing that weight. It’s a good step. He made a big commitment and hopefully it will pay off.”
“Cam’s through that first year of marriage and that good home cooking,” joked general manager Jim Rutherford. “He has a better understanding how much to eat. He’s dedicated himself because he knows in order to play a lot of games and be consistent you have to be in top condition. He deserves a lot of credit.”
It remains to be seen how Ward’s weight loss will affect his play in and around the crease. It certainly can’t hurt. The early returns on Ward’s overall game in his first starting gig were mostly above average, according to goaltending coach Greg Stefan.
“Because of his maturity, mentally he’s ahead of the curve,” Stefan said. “I only expect him to get better and better and better and expect big things from him in the future. His mental approach to the game, his calmness and his ability to make big saves at the right time were real positives.”
Stefan said Ward’s major weakness at this time is his puck-handling skills.
“It’s a confidence thing,” Stefan said. “Cam reads the puck quite well, but he’s a little unsure of himself handling the puck so he tends to simplify things. We’re going to keep working on that part of his game.”
Carolina’s attack mode on offense can a times leave a goalie to face some 2-on-1 breaks. So, Ward knows when he makes a save is as important as how many saves he makes.
“A lot of people look at the GAA and save percentage, but the most important thing to me is that win column,” Ward said. “With last year being an up-and-down year I was still able to reach the 30-win total, so I’m looking forward to the 40-win total this year. But I’m not trying to get too ahead of myself.
“Last year was a great learning experience,” Stefan said. “Cam played as well as he could of under the circumstances. The coaching staff was not happy with the way we played as a team. We won as a team the year before and we lost as a team last year.”
Ward’s remarkable playoff run in 2006, going 15-8 with a 2.14 GAA, including a win in the clinching Game 7 of the Cup finals, skyrocketed expectations, maybe too much. Rutherford, himself a former NHL goalie for more than a decade, said it takes about 4-5 seasons as a starter to really feel 100 percent comfortable between the pipes.
“There is so much to learn,” the GM said. “Anybody who is a professional athlete can play when they feel 100 percent healthy. But it’s how to play when you’re not feeling 100 percent. It’s like when you go to work, you don’t always feel good that day and you probably don’t perform that well that day. The difference with a professional athlete is they have to, everybody is watching you.
“That’s the biggest adjustment for somebody who is going to be a No. 1 goalie, going to play a lot of games. You have to figure out how to play the game when you’re not feeling as good. What Cam has done now is he’s prepared himself better than ever to do that.”
David Droschak is the former sports editor for the North Carolina bureaus of the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering organization in the world. In 2003, Droschak was named the North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year. The only writer in the Triangle to have covered the Carolina Hurricanes every season since the organization moved to North Carolina, he currently is a principal in the Raleigh-based public relations firm Hughes-Droschak Communications.