In the postgame euphoria of the Carolina Hurricanes' Stanley Cup championship in June 2006, grizzled veteran Rod Brind'Amour took a moment to acknowledge goalie Cam Ward, who went from backup keeper to Conn Smythe Trophy winner as a rookie.
"I got to raise the Cup because of that kid."
It was as auspicious a debut for a goaltender as the NHL had seen in nearly two decades. Ward won more games in the playoffs (15) than he did in the regular season (14). He was the third freshman goalie to lead his team to the Cup, joining Montreal Canadiens legends Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy; and with Dryden, Roy and Ron Hextall, he was the fourth rookie to ever win the MVP.
But as Brind'Amour said: He was a kid, in hockey terms. Twenty-two years old and with just 25 regular season starts. There were no guarantees for Ward or for his franchise, and they would both crash down to earth in the following two seasons. Carolina finished 11th in the East in 2006-07, as Ward had a 2.93 GAA and an underwhelming .897 save percentage. The following season saw the Hurricanes miss the playoffs by two points, and Ward was right around average: 2.75 GAA, .904 save percentage and 67 starts.
Ward's name stopped getting mentioned among the NHL's elite goaltenders. Observers began wondering if his Conn Smythe-winning performance "might be his high-water mark as an NHL goalie." He was a middle-of-the-pack goalie playing for a middle-of-the-pack team.
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Emphasis on "was": Ward has been one of the quietest but most compelling stories in the Eastern Conference this year, posting sterling numbers (2.50, .914) while backstopping Carolina to the fifth seed in the playoff standings. He's been steady and unspectacular; more importantly, he's been one of the most effective workhorses in the League, making his 22nd consecutive start in a critical victory over the Florida Panthers on Monday.
We talked to Ward yesterday about his spectacular season; the pressures of starting every game; the Hurricanes' turnaround under Paul Maurice; Marty Brodeur's records; outlandish goal celebrations; and, of course, dogs, cars, adult beverages and why he's less than satisfied with his bobblehead doll.
Q. Based on both stats and impact, you're having the best regular season of your NHL career. What's changed?
WARD: The consistency factor. That's always been kind of the question mark. Like last year at this time, I would have probably been worrying about the "what ifs" and whatnot.
What's different this year is that I'm back to enjoying the moment, enjoying the opportunity and taking it as-is. Over time, [goaltending coach] Tom Barrasso and the drills he's done with me have improved my rebound control and have improved my quickness from side to side, to that I'm never giving up on a rebound. He's really helped me along the way, and has really improved my game on the ice and mentally off the ice.
Is this your longest streak of starts for the Hurricanes, outside of the postseason?
I think it is, actually. Including the postseason. There were a couple of times ... I don't know if you remember the playoffs when we won the Cup, [Martin Gerber] played a couple of games in there. The most I played consecutive was, I think, 20 of that year. So things are going really well.
When you're in this kind of a streak, does it mess around with you mentally at all?
[Coach] Paul Maurice has done an excellent job giving us some time off at the right times. For example, today [Tuesday] we had the day off and we're just staying away from the rink. I've been able to step away and just kind of relax mentally and not over-think the game. I think that keeps me fresh.
I wouldn't even have thought, physically or mentally, that it's my 22nd consecutive game. It felt like just another game.
What do you do for mental breaks? Go to the mall? Go see "Watchmen" for the fifth time?
[Laughs] I got a dog.
What kind of dog?
You're going to laugh: It's a Silky Terrier.
[Laughs] What's his name?
Rex. He's my best buddy. He's a full-grown, seven-pound dog. I love taking him for long walks with my wife. That's, to me, one of my favorite things to do -- go, walk by the lake, take a breather.
I don't think it's any secret that, since you won the Cup and won the Conn, the perceptions of you have been a little askew. You haven't gotten the attention you've deserved during the times you've played well. This run in the last few months seems to have almost put you back on the map. Is that how you see it?
It's honestly something I don't really think about. Obviously, the last couple years after the Stanley Cup didn't pan out the way we hoped and we missed the playoffs. But I like to think I'm a better goaltender today from learning from the past experiences. That I'm better this year than I have been for the last couple of years.
So you never used the criticism as a motivation?
No, I never did. The thing about winning the Stanley Cup and going into the playoffs is that there really wasn't much expected out of me when I came in during Game 3 against Montreal. But winning the Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe, those expectations really went to another level, and that's a great thing.
These past couple of years, I've been fighting through the inconsistency. Where I'd have a good month and have a bad month. Part of being a goaltender is that you have to be able to play on a consistent level, night in and night out. A perfect example of that is Martin Brodeur breaking that win record. As a goaltender, you can appreciate what he's done because he's been able to do it year after year, night after night.
Speaking of Brodeur: I gotta imagine for a goalie that him breaking the Terry Sawchuk shutouts record would be more impressive than the wins record, right?
I would have to agree with you, but I would say both of those are just tremendous accomplishments.
Marty Brodeur was one of those guys that, as a kid, definitely looked up to. When I got the opportunity to play against him, it was a pretty eye-opening experience. Still, to this day, when I got into warm-ups and stretch right beside him at the red line, it still gives me goose bumps up my body. He's one of the best to ever play the game.
For those who haven't seen the Hurricanes much this season, what was the major difference when Paul Maurice took over as head coach?
It's been an improvement in our own zone. The guys have made my job a lot easier. We've been kind of known as a run and gun team in these last couple of years. We scored a lot of goals but we also gave up a lot of goals. Since Paul stepped in, we've really tightened up defensively and, in my eyes, we have a very underrated defensive lineup.
A lot's been made about Erik Cole returning to the team. When he came back and starting kicking ass, were you like, "Why wasn't this dude here all season?"
The trade surprised a lot of people. On the one hand, it was sad to see a good friend and a good player in Justin Williams move on. But on the other hand, it was great to see a familiar face coming back. It was a great fit for Erik -- he was familiar with the style of play and the area and the fans. He came in and was an immediate impact. When he's on, I believe he's one of the most powerful forwards in the game.
Heading into the postseason, is there one point of concern for the Hurricanes, something you'd like to see improved?
That is a tough question. Things here are going awfully well for us. I wouldn't want to change much right now.
As a goaltender, you like a team that plays well in front of you. I know it's an old cliché, but a good defense is a good offense. Ever since we tightened up defensively, we've been scoring more goals. It's something we had a tough time doing in the first half of the season.
Let me ask you about the division. The Washington Capitals have been lauded all season, and the Florida Panthers have been an underdog story lately. And then there's you guys, who just keep winning and climbing the ladder. Do you think people are going to start to take notice?
I think the fans have, down here in Raleigh. They've been by our side all along this way; it's tough to say what others feel.
We do play in a tough division in the Southeast. Where you've got the Capitals and Florida, and even teams like Atlanta and Tampa Bay who are both strong teams depending on the night [you play them]. We're not focusing on what other teams are going to be doing. We're just trying to take care of our own business.
I did. I like to think that if that was me, I wouldn't have stood there and just watched it. [Laughs]
There's no doubt that Ovechkin is an elite player in this League. Arguably, the best hockey player in this League. But I could have done without the antics. Spur of the moment, I can understand. But preplanning?
So what are you driving these days?
I drive a Maserati.
That Conn Smythe money at work. What year?
You're doing OK for yourself there, Cammer.
And your adult beverage of choice, sir?
I love red wine.
Funny you should say that. When the wife and I were in the Outer Banks (NC) last year, I actually picked up a bottle of 10th anniversary Carolina Hurricanes red table wi...
Ooooh, you didn't actually drink it, did you?!
No, it's just sort of decoration.
Well, keep it that way. That one's for on-display. I haven't given it a chance, but I've heard nothing but bad things about it.
Thanks for the warning. So do you still own that rec league team up in Red Deer? Are you playing general manager on your off time or anything?
It's kind of a funny thing. I don't know if you've ever seen the Web site -- it's RedDeerJets.com -- but it's pretty funny how they keep track of it. They do fake interviews, they play it up like it's an NHL franchise but it's a men's rec team. It's a joke, but at the same time it's very real: I donate $20 for every goal that they score to the Red Deer Special Olympics. They take it very seriously.
Mike Sundheim from the Hurricanes mentioned a bobblehead doll for you. Has it come out yet?
Now, I don't know if you've seen our blogs about this, but we have covered the awkward history of Carolina Hurricanes bobbleheads. Specifically, the Eric Staal one that looked like a porno blowup doll in the face. Have you seen your bobblehead and did you approve it?
[Laughs] I have seen my bobblehead, and I did get a sneak preview. It doesn't really look anything like me ... and I sure hope it doesn't look like a porno bobblehead.
They got the gear right, all the colors right. But the face ... I think they played it safe. There are no attributes to it.
It's not a McFarlane; but, nonetheless, its head bobbles.