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Archives: Ward Having Fun Again

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

This story was originally published on Feb. 28, 2015, after Cam Ward had played in his 500th NHL game. On Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, Ward will play in his 600th NHL game.


"Have Fun."

Seven letters, two words. You can find them hand-inscribed on the bottom of each of Cam Ward's goalie sticks, right where the paddle meets the blade. It's a simple reminder of an important message.

"My parents said, 'The more fun you have, the better you do,'" said Ward, now a father of two, himself. "That was our golden rule growing up. I don't think that should change as a professional."

***

Ward played in his 500th career NHL game on Tuesday night against Philadelphia, and he joined select company in doing so, as he came just the fourth active goaltender to appear in 500 games with one team. In the milestone game, he made 23 saves to earn his 240th career victory.

I strolled down the winding press row corridor with goaltending coach David Marcoux following the game.

"That couldn't have gone any better for him," I said.

"That was the plan," Marcoux smiled back.

Game No. 500, in the grand scheme of things, is but a fraction, less than one half of one percent of Ward's regular-season NHL career.

It's one game, but it's differentiated in what it represents, the milestone it marks. And there was no doubt that the Hurricanes were going to make it as memorable as it could be for No. 30.

"The guys were sacrificing, and I thought we were in control for a majority of the night against a very good team as of late," Ward said after the game. "It was clear that our guys wanted to put in a really strong effort tonight, and I really appreciate that. It makes it a lot sweeter when you walk out of here with a win."

"I think the guys wanted to make sure it was a memorable night. 500, and you look at the group that he's with … there's Stanley Cup winners, Conn Smythe winners, Olympians, he's in tall cotton," head coach Bill Peters said at his postgame press conference. "He's elite in my opinion. I love the way he handles the puck, and I love his demeanor. We're lucky to be getting the type of goaltending we're getting each and every night."

It was only fitting that game No. 500 gets marked down as a win for Ward, who was, of course, the recipient of the fireman's helmet after the game.

"I was a little bit anxious and a little bit jittery in the first period, I'm not going to lie. The puck seemed to be bouncing off me in the first period, but I was really able to calm down in the second and third and felt a lot more relaxed," Ward said. "Thankfully my parents flew in yesterday and were able to come to the game. To feel good after the win after getting a win makes it that much better."

***

When Peters was named head coach of the Hurricanes, he knew he had a very good goaltender in Ward. But that was about it.

"I didn't know much about him as a person other than some time in Sylvan Lake," Peters said. "He was a successful junior goalie, and I just knew he had a lot of success in his career."

Now Peters has seen firsthand what Ward is capable of on the ice.

"He's a veteran guy, and I think he's done a good job working on his game with Dave (Marcoux)," Peters said. "He's a real good goaltender. He's a calm guy and a good, quiet leader in our room. I know it gives our team a lot of confidence when he's in our net."

His off-ice work is just as noteworthy. Ward is involved with Special Olympics in Alberta and North Carolina, and he hosts special needs athletes in a suite at home games throughout the season in his "Cam's Champs" program.

"We want character individuals, guys we believe are going to represent us well. He certainly fits that role," said Executive Vice President and General Manager Ron Francis. "He handles himself extremely well on and off the ice and gives a lot back to the community through his charities. He doesn't do it in a manner where he's looking for attention; he does it because he feels it's the right thing to do."

"I've been very fortunate to be a part of this organization and get the opportunities I've been given. I don't take that for granted," Ward said. "I love playing in this city, and I've made it clear that our family considers this home."

Faces come and go in the locker room from season to season. Alongside a few others, though, Ward has been a constant.

"Off the ice, we're pretty much best friends," said defenseman Tim Gleason, Ward's teammate for nine years. "It kind of started more on the ice. I'm a guy - I don't really like to say it - but anybody touches him, and I'm in there. I guess it kind of formed from that point on. He liked that in me as a player, and it just kind of grew. Nine years later, we're best of friends.

"He's a great player but an even better person."

***

Discovering a passion for goaltending can be accidental for some. But for Ward, who was raised in Sherwood Park, Alberta, it was a position to which he was drawn quite naturally.

"My dad was a goaltender, although he didn't play professionally. It was just a position I gravitated to, making the cool saves," Ward recalled. "There was a time when I was young that the best days were when you could play out for half the game and in goal for the second half because obviously I liked to play other positions, too. But I always gravitated towards the goaltending position."

Years later, an 18-year-old Ward was drafted 25th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes, who were coming off a magical run to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings in 2002.

"It was the beginning of an opportunity to play professionally. I only played one year of junior prior to getting drafted, and I was thankful for the opportunity Brent Sutter gave me in Red Deer," Ward said, referencing the 2001-02 season, in which he was named the Western Hockey League's top goaltender as a rookie. "To hear your name, to go in the first round and go up on stage was something special."

After being drafted, Ward would play two more seasons with the Red Deer Rebels. In 2002-03, he led the WHL in wins with 40, helping the team to capture the Central Division Title for the second straight year and leading the Rebels to the WHL Finals with a 14-9 record and 2.09 goals-against average in the postseason. The next season, Ward was a runner-up to Sidney Crosby for the CHL's player of the year award.

Ward played in 50 games with the Lowell Lock Monsters of the American Hockey League in 2004-05, a crucial stepping stone in his development; Ward, teammates with Eric Staal, faced a strengthened talent pool while a work stoppage scrapped the NHL season.

"It was really important for my development. That league was so good because of the lockout," he said. "There were a lot of NHL-quality players playing in that league, so it made the transition a lot easier taking that step first and then the following year to the NHL."

***

Ward played in just 28 games during his rookie season in the NHL, as he served as the back-up to Martin Gerber, who posted a 38-14-6 record as the team's clear-cut No. 1.

"It was a little bit different for me because I was accustomed to playing a lot of games," Ward recalled. "Settling into my rookie season and not playing as much in the regular season was a bit of an adjustment, but I was also a rookie in this league and really happy to be in the best league in the world."

The Montreal Canadiens ripped the Hurricanes 6-1 in the opening game of the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs. Gerber made just 15 saves on 21 shots. In game No. 2 of the quarterfinals, Gerber was pulled after the Canes fell into a three-goal hole in the first period. Though the Hurricanes would mount two comebacks and force overtime, Montreal left Raleigh with a 6-5 win and a 2-0 series lead.

But Ward had claimed the crease.

"When things changed in the playoffs and I got that opportunity, I thought, 'How cool is this?' To be able to get my first playoff start in Montreal, you couldn't write a better story," Ward said. "To be honest, I didn't feel a whole lot of pressure because I don't think a whole lot was expected of myself. I just wanted to make sure that I enjoyed the moment and took advantage of it."

That he did, and the rest is forever etched into history on the greatest trophy in sports.

"He's a competitor. He competes every night," said Gleason, who joined the Canes in the following season. "He's got a track record from winning the Stanley Cup, and that will always be with him."

"It's the highlight of my career, no question. To be able to hoist the Stanley Cup and have your name on it forever is really special. That's what we strive for when we turn professional," Ward said. "I was very fortunate to be able to do it in my rookie season, and I'm quickly realizing how difficult it is to get back there. It makes you appreciate it a lot more."

***

Since that magical season, Ward has played in more than 60 games in five of the last eight campaigns. The 31-year-old ranks first in franchise history in games played (500) and wins (240), and he's been the face of the Hurricanes' goaltending for nearly a decade.

"Expectations are there after the Stanley Cup year, but I was excited about the opportunity to be a No. 1 goaltender in this league," he said. "Over the years the expectations get higher and higher, and getting those expectations are a good thing. It proves that you have been to that level, and that's where people expect you to be. But it does add a lot of pressure, and a lot of it is how you handle it. That was a learning curve for me."

There has been just one trip to the playoffs between the Cup win and today. In 2009, the Canes bested the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in seven games each to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

Injuries and a playoff drought that is now threatening six seasons, though, intensified Ward's frustration, especially in the last two years. Rumors of the goaltender's future in Carolina swirled last summer.

Ward has responded by putting up his best numbers in terms of goals-against average and save percentage in a number of seasons.

"He's obviously a very talented goaltender. His record this year from Nov. 1 on is pretty impressive, and there are a lot of little things he does that maybe people don't pick up on, like his ability to handle the puck. That's huge," Francis said. "There are a lot of things that he does extremely well in his game. We're glad to see him back playing at the level we thought he could play at. He feels good about it. He's been a big part of this organization for a long time."

"He cares," Gleason said. "He works hard to better himself every single day. There is a reason why he's played almost 500 games."

"His demeanor and approach has been good. It's been a tough couple of years. You want more, and you want better," Eric Staal said. "This year, a credit to him, he came in with the right mindset and attitude. With the help of Dave (Marcoux), he's been a very, very solid player for us. He's had a great year."

And, he's having fun again.

"At the end of the day, we're lucky to be playing a game for a living," Ward said. "And I really believe that the more fun I'm having, the better I play."

***

Ward was honored for his 500th game when the Hurricanes hosted the Capitals on Friday. There was a pregame ceremony and video board messages from current and former teammates throughout the game.

One of the gifts Ward was given in the ceremony was a silver goalie stick from the team. Engraved where the paddle meets the blade: "Have Fun."

"I kind of strayed from remembering what's important in life: your family and your faith. I got back to that, first and foremost, and with that, I wanted to get back to having fun in the game. With the injuries and the way things were going the last couple of years, it took a toll on me," Ward said. "I care about this team, I care about this organization and I want to win, so it wears on you. But I was able to hit the reset button and get back to playing the way I did as a kid. Get back to making the cool saves and having fun, just enjoying the moment again like I did early in my career."

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