Building a great hockey team is a challenge at any level, but building one that wins year after year is both a science and an art. Before they reach the pinnacle, such teams must first create the atmosphere conducive to such success.
As he prepared for the Rangers' 2006 Training Camp, which opened Thursday at the Madison Square Garden Training Center, head coach Tom Renney reaffirmed his commitment to creating "an identity for this team that is respected from top to bottom in this league and will also stand the test of time." The Rangers made tremendous strides toward that goal in 2005-06, and the potential for the coming season seems limitless.
Building on the success of 2005-06, Rangers management continued to upgrade the team by identifying free agents with both great on-ice skill and a strong presence in the locker room. One such player is 33-year-old defenseman Aaron Ward, who signed with the Rangers just weeks after lifting the Stanley Cup as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Like former teammates Brendan Shanahan and Matt Cullen, who have also joined the Rangers for 2006-07, Ward knows quite a bit about winning. In Detroit, he and Shanahan skated together on two Stanley Cup championship teams, and in Carolina, he shared his Cup victory with teammate and good friend Cullen.
Articulate and thoughtful, Ward said the first thing that hit him when he entered the Madison Square Garden Training Center this month was the similarity to winning environments he has known throughout his career.
"You've already got a winning feeling here. You see the type of intensity in this locker room," said Ward after skating with his new teammates in an informal pre-camp scrimmage on Tuesday. "Even now, you've got guys that are here early. I was here last week and a number of the guys were already here getting ready. When you're a losing team, guys wheel in a day or two before training camp. When you're a winning team, people are here like this kind of getting that camaraderie going again. Getting that feeling that there's a sense of unity in the locker room."
Ward has competed in the Stanley Cup playoffs five times. Over that stretch, his teams have gone 56-33 in postseason games. He won the Stanley Cup in his first trip to the playoffs, and he won it in his most recent playoff appearance. His hockey resume is a study in championships.
So when he became an unrestricted free agent at the end of last season, Ward's services were naturally sought by many teams. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound blueliner, however, had some definite ideas about where he wanted to be.
"Fans might think a player just goes to a team because there's a greater financial success there for him, but that's not it, "said Ward, a former No. 5 overall draft pick from the University of Michigan. "It's a lot like when I was recruited in college. We literally as a family sat down and listed a few things regarding where we wanted to be. There was a component on my list of which teams would have a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and there was a big check mark right there next to the Rangers. You don't want to go anywhere where you feel like you're going to have to endure a season. You want to enjoy a season. I'm going to enjoy this season."
Ward was also drawn to New York because of the city itself. Originally from Windsor, Ontario, he began his career in nearby Detroit before moving to Raleigh, N.C., when he was traded to the Hurricanes five years ago.
"Playing for an Original Six team, what more can you ask for?" Ward said. "Plus, it's New York. Where else would I get an opportunity to play in such a great city or to come to a such great city? I'm basically being invited to come and experience what is New York."
Yet another factor in the Rangers' favor involved Ward's former teammates already in the Rangers fold. Not only did Cullen also sign this summer, but two Rangers regulars -- defenseman Marek Malik and goaltender Kevin Weekes -- were right there with Ward when the Hurricanes went to the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to Shanahan's Red Wings. The addition of Shanahan not long after Ward signed was an added bonus.
"It's great to have him here," said Ward of Shanahan. "He's a guy that I think suits the Eastern Conference style of play. You talk about the intangibles, and I know having played with him what he can bring in the locker room and on the ice. So that's one of the things where when you talk about fostering a winning environment in this locker room, this is what this man brings. He's not someone that's going to stand up every day and demand to be heard, but when the time comes that something has to be addressed, he'll be a guy that's there."
New teammates are also happy to have Ward on their side. Weekes said fans will soon discover that Ward is an outstanding shot blocker with a long reach, and that he plays with determination on every shift.
Ultimately, however, Ward said the most important factor in his signing - the one that has him most excited about the 2006-07 season -- was a sense that the Rangers are on the verge of becoming an elite team like the one he played for in Detroit. He says he began to realize that while playing for the Hurricanes last year, and he gives tremendous credit to Renney and the coaching staff.
"You knew when you played the Rangers last season it was either going to be a close game or they were going to blow you out because they had that potential," Ward recalled. "I saw MSG Network just replayed the game where we lost 4-2 to the Rangers, and they kind of ran us around. That's the realization and it's why the Rangers achieved that level of respect around the league.
"When the Rangers are the topic of conversation around the league not because they missed the playoffs again but because they're a team to watch out for or a team with unlimited potential, that's when you know. It's when other players are talking about that team. That's when you know they've achieved respect."
Ward will be one of more than 20 defensemen in the Rangers' training camp. No stranger to the NHL preseason rituals, Ward says he knows what's most important in the weeks ahead.
Ward has a wealth of experience and would be a valuable addition to any NHL team's locker room.
"I think the worst mistake you can make is to look around and see what other people are doing. It goes back to taking care of what you're in control of, and that's your performance on the ice," said Ward. "At training camp I don't really look around at faces or numbers or what's going on. It's a crash course for some of us. We're all in different situations. Some of the young guys are just trying to get their feet wet, some guys are really at the cusp of making the team, and other guys are just trying to familiarize themselves with a new game.
"I'm going to pay a lot of attention to the system. Because if you don't know the system coming in here, its just like being a quarterback. If you're throwing the ball to nobody, you're way out of place. So for some of us right now it's just getting acclimated to the guys in the locker room, the system that they play, and their tendencies. Who they are and what they're about. Getting to know them off the ice and forming that bond. Because coming into a new environment, you have to find your niche. I know that's the key."
With 10 full NHL seasons already under his belt, Ward is typical of the veteran Rangers in wanting to pass along lessons he has learned to younger teammates and the organization's prospects. Thus, Ward said his focus at camp will be on bonding with others of all ages -- not only because he'd like to make some new friends, but because such connections help breed a culture of winning.
"You don't go very far in life on a sports team without some sort of desire to play for each other," said Ward. "It's not only the coach. Everybody gets lost in saying whether or not a coach is a players' coach, but the coach still has to foster a feeling in the locker room that the players want to play for each other, too. It's about the guy beside you and the guy behind you."
Being part of the Rangers' locker room has brought Ward full circle. That's because one of the former NHLers who influenced Ward's own development as a young player was also part of the Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup team.
"When I was in Detroit, I played with Joey Kocur," said Ward. "Joey's a great guy, and above all, he's a team guy. He puts the team before anybody. It's one of those lessons you learn from other teams that you try to bring with you. You're not going to go anywhere unless it's a cumulative effort."