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Feb. 29 birthday boys small and eclectic group

Hurricanes' Ward only 'leap day' celebrant active in NHL

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / Managing Editor

Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward will turn 32 on Monday, when he'll celebrate his "real" birthday for the eighth time.

Ward is the only active NHL player, and one of nine in League history, who was born on "Leap Day," added to the calendar once every four years to keep things in harmony. He said he has usually done his celebrating the day before his actual birthday.

"I always celebrated it on the 28th; I liked to keep it in the same month," he said. "I usually had a big celebration when the 29th came around because it only comes once every four years,"

Defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, who played 45 games with the New York Rangers and the Hurricanes from 2009-13 and now plays with the Rochester Americans, the Buffalo Sabres' affiliate in the American Hockey League, is the only other active Feb. 29-born player who has played in an NHL game.

Sanguinetti and Kari Eloranta, who played 267 NHL games from 1981-82 to 1986-87, all but 12 with the Calgary Flames, are the only defensemen born Feb. 29. Eloranta, the only non-North American among the Feb. 29-born players, had 13 goals and 116 points before returning to his native Finland to conclude his career.

The fewest NHL games played by a Leap Day player is two, by Darryl Williams, a forward who was with the Los Angeles Kings briefly in 1992-93 and is now an assistant coach for the Rangers. James Dobson, who played with the Minnesota North Stars and Colorado Rockies in the early 1980s, is next with 12.

By far the most famous (and accomplished) member of the NHL's Feb. 29 club is also its oldest. Hall of Famer Henri Richard was born on this date in 1936 and joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1955-56. The younger brother of Hall of Famer Maurice "Rocket" Richard is by far the best offensive player among all Feb. 29 players, with 358 goals, 688 assists and 1.046 points in 1,256 games.

Video: BOS@CAR: Ward stones Kemppainen's point-blank shot

Richard was a First-Team All-Star in 1957-58 and made the Second Team the next season. No one else born on Feb. 29 has made a postseason All-Star team.

Richard is one of only three Feb. 29-born players to win a Stanley Cup; however, he leads all players, regardless of birthday, by winning 11 of them. When he won his 11th Cup in 1973, Richard actually had more championships than "birthdays;" Feb. 29 had come around only nine times.

The other two members of the Feb. 29 birthday club who have been on Stanley Cup-winning teams have done so during the 21st century. Ward is only the only goaltender in the group, and also the only one to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The Edmonton native did both as a rookie in 2006, when his goaltending sparked the Hurricanes to the only Stanley Cup in franchise history.

The most recent Cup-winner is forward Simon Gagne, a member of the Kings when they won the franchise's first championship in 2012.

Richard's 80 points in 1957-58 are the most in one season by any Feb. 29-born player, though Gagne is the only one to break the 40-goal mark. He did it twice with the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring 47 goals in 2005-06 and 41 the following season. Gagne's 822 games, 291 goals, 310 assists and 601 points all are second to Richard -- and far ahead of third-place Daniel Daoust, who had 87 goals, 167 assists and 254 points in 522 games between 1983 and 1990.

Though forward Lyndon Byers played less than a quarter as many games as Richard in his 10 NHL seasons, he has taken more penalty minutes than anyone else born on Feb. 29. Byers piled up 1,081 penalty minutes in 279 games, mostly with the Boston Bruins. Richard is next with 928.

Though neither was born on Leap Day, Feb. 29 has historic significance for two hockey legends.

Video: CAR@TOR: Ward denies Greening with left pad

Gordie Howe scored the 800th goal of his legendary career during the Hartford Whalers' 3-0 victory against the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 29, 1980. The soon-to-be 52-year-old took a pass from Greg Carroll and beat Mike Liut for the milestone goal.

"That was great," he said after the game at the Hartford Civic Center. "I was especially glad it happened at home."

Wayne Gretzky also has a connection to Leap Day. After being traded by the Los Angeles Kings two days earlier, Gretzky played his first game as a member of the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 29, 1996, and scored a goal in a 2-2 tie with the Vancouver Canucks.

Ward won't have the chance to win for the first time on his birthday; the Hurricanes have Monday off after playing the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. It's the third time in as many leap years that Carolina has played Feb. 28 but not the next day.

He'll have to settle for a non-hockey celebration.  

"I'm sure I will get some 8-year-old birthday cards," he said, "but I'm looking forward to it." correspondent Kurt Dusterberg contributed to this story

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