Droschak: Ward Returns to Comfort Zone
Then there’s Aaron Ward, who spent some of his down time since being acquired in a trade for Patrick Eaves in late July showing former Boston teammates Andrew Alberts and Stephane Yelle around the Triangle and trading jokes with his former boss, Paul Maurice.
After all, Ward considers himself home, blending in seamlessly with Rod Brind’Amour, Erik Cole, Matt Cullen, Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Niclas Wallin, Chad LaRose and Ray Whitney – all of whom share the common bond of 2006 Stanley Cup champions.
Following the Cup win, Ward left for the big money of New York before being traded to the Bruins, where he teamed with All-Star Zdeno Chara last season on Boston’s top defensive unit. While Ward’s monetary rewards were handsome and Boston posted the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, deep playoff runs eluded the 36-year-old defenseman since leaving Carolina.
Cullen also left for the Rangers with Ward and was re-acquired in 2007 by General Manager Jim Rutherford.
“Two or three months into being in New York they were wishing they had been able to stay,” Cole said of Ward and Cullen. “They had to do what was best for their families, but deep down this is where they wanted to be and this was the group they wanted to be a part of, a place they had found comfort and a good niche. It’s obvious when you see Aaron at the rink, you see how excited he is. He’s happy to be back.”
Ward was the fifth overall pick by Winnipeg in what turned out to be a deep 1991 NHL Draft, producing 10 All-Stars from the first round. Players like Peter Forsberg, Brian Rolston, Alexei Kovalev, Markus Naslund and Glen Murray were selected after Ward, who attended the University of Michigan and was quickly traded away by the Jets to Detroit in 1993.
And although Ward played in 19 playoff games while winning the Cup in 1996-97, the Red Wings soon soured on the burly defenseman and traded him to Carolina in July 2001 for a second-round draft pick.
It was clear the Canes had purchased a player from a winning franchise, but it was a bit murky what the team was getting on the ice since Ward’s ice time with Detroit had dwindled.
It’s somewhat ironic Ward played 79 games for Carolina that season, helping lead the team to a surprising berth in the Cup finals for the first time in franchise history, against none other than his former team, the Detroit Red Wings. Although Carolina lost the series in five games, Ward had solidified himself as one of Maurice’s shut-down blue-liners, a role he had yearned for in Hockeytown.
“I went through a transition period coming out of Detroit where I played a subordinate role and Paul gave me the confidence at that stage to allow me to step to the forefront and have more of a bearing on what was going on in the locker room and on the ice,” Ward said.
“Sometimes as an athlete you look at a situation and understand that you are blessed. I think this situation dictates that for me. I’ve gotten an opportunity to come home at a great stage of my life, a great stage of my family’s life. I still feel like I’ve got a lot of offer, so it’s a good situation for me just being here overall.”
It remains to be seen over the next 10 days who Ward will be paired with along the blue line as the regular season quickly approaches. While still a physical and intimidating force in front of the net and in the corners, Ward has trimmed down considerably from when he played for the Canes the first time.
“You get older, and most of the time in the NHL you get leaner,” Maurice said of Ward as he’s set to begin his 15th NHL season. “It’s not baby fat, it’s just mass. These kids spend so much time trying to get bigger and stronger, bigger and stronger, and then they get to the point where they realize they are big and strong enough, and they have to get faster because as you get older that’s the first thing you lose. He looks like he’s a very fit man and he fits right into our group because of it.”
While his defensive game has evolved with experience (762 NHL games), and he often pokes fun at his capabilities at the other end of the ice, among other things, Ward is a better offensive player than most give him credit for. Remember, it was Ward who scored the first goal in Game 7 of the Cup finals.
“First and foremost, he’s a real solid stay-at-home guy and understands the game very well because he’s a very bright man,” Maurice said. “But we think there is more there, the simple offense is there for him. He’s got a good shot, he can get it though, he can make the passes and he can join the rush. And when you look at our team, we do this with just about everybody. Everybody is expected to do a little bit of everything. It’s not just him staying at home. Tim Gleason had some big points for us in the playoffs last year. We kind of allow our players to do a little bit of everything because we need them to.”
All that has really changed for Ward since he’s returned to Raleigh is a locker on the opposite side of the room where he used to hold court with reporters and trade barbs with teammates.
“He’s just one of those guys to banter with and keep things loose,” Cole said of Ward’s personality. “Guys like he and Whitney can zing one-liners back and forth and it keeps everybody on their toes and keeps the mood in the room pretty loose.
“On the ice, he’s tough to play against and a guy who can lean on opponents' No. 1 lines and make for some tough minutes for other teams' top talents,” added Cole. “That’s something that goes a long way, especially in the playoffs when you’re trying to grind other teams down. And he knows what it takes to win.”
Barring some unforeseen circumstance, Ward will likely end his NHL career in a city where he’s captured his fondest hockey memories.
“We both probably have more kids than we did the last time we were together and he’s changed his understanding of the game. Experience for a defenseman is everything,” Maurice said. “I probably can enjoy Aaron a little bit more now because he’s got a great sense of humor.”
And if there is one coach Ward will play to exhaustion for, it’s Maurice, who helped provide an avenue for Ward to blossom in this league when others may have doubted his value.
“As a player you’re not going to relate to every single coach you have, that’s why they usually have a pretty good mix, the same good-cop, bad-cop kind of consistency to a locker room,” Ward said. “I usually gravitate more to the good cop because I’m a pretty laid back, easy-going guy, and for me I want to play for a guy I enjoy being around.“It is a great thing we’re paid to play a game we love, but sometimes there is a bit of monotony to the process and you have to find some motivating factors, and it could be coming to the rink every day and seeing that face of a coach and knowing you’re going to have an enjoyable day because that guy is there, he’s going to make it fun. That’s a positive of being back here.”