Ward keeps control

Toughness grows over time

Staff writerJanuary 30, 2011 

— Cam Ward is accustomed to hearing cheers at the RBC Center, and the guy the Carolina Hurricanes call "Wardo" will hear a lot more today.

The goaltender, for the first time, will be playing in an NHL All-Star Game and will do it in front of a host of home fans.

"It gives me goosebumps just thinking about the atmosphere," said Ward, who will play for Team Staal in tonight's game and was the first pick in Friday night's NHL Fantasy Draft.

All-Star games were expected to be commonplace for Ward. That happens when you're 22 and your team wins a Stanley Cup and you wrap your arms around the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Ward was a rookie in 2006 when the Hurricanes won the Cup, outlasting the Edmonton Oilers in seven games in the Stanley Cup finals. Ward, not Canes captain Rod Brind'Amour, not leading scorer Eric Staal, was voted the most valuable player in the playoffs.

"It was a great way to start but also a tough way to start," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. "The expectations ..."

Where do you go from there? Having reached those heights, how do you live up to that?

"Just coming in every day and giving your team a chance to win," Ward said. "Obviously, there's high expectations, but I think it's a good thing that you have those high expectations. It obviously means that you've been there, you've done that and you're capable of doing that. It challenges me.

"I've learned throughout my six years, what it's like to be an NHL starter. I think I'm mentally tougher than I was years ago. It's helped me get over losses, get over bad goals, just focus on the next shot.

"Really, that's what it's all about. You can control what you can control. And that's giving the team a chance to win each and every night."

A place to grow

Tom Barrasso, the Hurricanes' goaltending coach, has worked closely with Ward the past four seasons, improving his techniques, his mental approach to games. He also can relate to the weight Ward had to carry after his Stanley Cup success.

In 1984, fresh out of high school and just 18, Barrasso was a rookie for the Buffalo Sabres. He won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender and the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

That's starting at the top. No Stanley Cup that year, but Barrasso went on to win two of those with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Ward's talent, intelligence and maturity, Barrasso said, have helped him handle all the expectations while developing into an elite goaltender.

"I think he's done well," Barrasso said. "Being in this market, I think, buys you some time where you look around the league. If you're in Montreal or if you're in Toronto, I think the magnification of a young goaltender's errors get very distorted and it makes it very hard to develop.

"You look back through the history of some of those cities, and you see that. There have been some good young goaltending prospects that haven't worked out as people thought they might because of the external pressures."

Jose Theodore comes to mind. He won the Hart Trophy in 2002 with the Montreal Canadiens but never was the same after his meltdown - and the searing criticism that came with it - against the Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs that season.

Building on talent

Paul Maurice wasn't the Hurricanes' coach in 2006 - Peter Laviolette was. But Maurice was the Canes' coach when Ward was the team's first-round draft pick in 2002, he's the coach now, and he has an appreciation for his star goaltender and for his play in the five years that have passed since the Cup run.

"I think what you've got here is a really good goaltender who probably played on talent that first year, won the Conn Smythe because he's a very gifted, fit player," Maurice said. "Then the expectations of him were to 'Conn Smythe' the rest of his career, to be that guy every month.

"But there's a lot of learning and developing that has to go on, especially for a No. 1 goaltender. Now you have a guy who's in the 25-26 range, that in the next two to three years is going to come into his prime and stay there for four or five [years]."

Since winning the Conn Smythe, Ward has won a lot of games. His play in goal helped Carolina reach the Eastern Conference finals in 2009.

When the Hurricanes needed to beat the New Jersey Devils in Game 7 that year, on the road, Ward out dueled the Devils' Martin Brodeur, a future Hall of Famer. When they needed to beat the Boston Bruins in Game 7 in the next round, on the road, he outdueled the Bruins' Tim Thomas, the Vezina winner in 2009.

"He blocks the net well, he's a good second-effort goalie, he dives across and does everything he can to stop the puck," Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said of Ward. "He's already won a Stanley Cup, and you never win the Stanley Cup by being lucky for two months. He's just a good goalie."

Disappointment, too

But if Ward has had big games and big moments, there also has been injury and disappointment.

Born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and raised outside Edmonton, Ward long had dreamed of playing for Team Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. That dream more or less ended in a flash and a slash, as quick as it took the skate of the Columbus Blue Jackets' Rick Nash to rip into Ward's leg in an early November 2009 game. It was close to the knee and perilously close to being a career-ending injury.

Last season was one mostly of misery. There was no Olympic team selection, no gold medal. After recovering from the slash, Ward later was out for a month with a back injury that did not require surgery but resulted in a different and more rigorous conditioning program.

"He took a big step this year with his offseason training," Rutherford said.

Ward incorporated Pilates into his workouts, drawing teasing from teammates but helping his flexibility. He was strong in training camp, strong when the regular season began.

The Canes opened the season in Finland, beating the Minnesota Wild 4-3 and then 2-1 in a shootout.

"The two wins in Finland, and the way Cam played, gave our team a lot of confidence and set the foundation for the season," Rutherford said.

Staying calm

In November, Ward and his wife, Cody, celebrated the birth of their first child: a son, Nolan Kennedy. A few days later, Ward shut out the Boston Bruins 3-0 in Boston, saying he wanted to give his son something to remember in the years to come.

Ward takes a 22-15-5 record into the All-Star Game and has 160 career regular-season victories. He has another 23 in the playoffs, going 4-0 in Game 7s, and has passed Arturs Irbe - one of the Canes' heroes of 2002 - for the franchise record for games played by a goalie.

Those who closely observe Ward during games often use the same word to describe him: calm.

"Even when the pressure is coming on him hard, he's so calm in the net, and I think the team feeds off that," backup goalie Justin Peters said. "He's real agile in the net. He's always in good position and put himself in a situation to be able to react to pucks. But I think what allows him to do that is that he's so calm in net."

But is Ward really that calm?

"Maybe appearance-wise," Ward said, smiling. "I'm a competitive guy like everybody else, but I find I play my best when I'm relaxed and calm in the net. I find I'm able to control more of my rebounds when I'm just relaxed.

"I need to be like that. You can't let yourself get too wound up and you start to over move and thinking about things too much. You've just got to be able to read and react to play the game."

And control what you can control.

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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