Start counting off the active NHL goaltenders who have played 500 career games, and only one hand is needed.
Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury make up that short, select list. For now.
Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes will soon be adding his name. Should Ward start Friday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, it will be No. 499, with the milestone game soon to follow.
“It’s been brought to my attention that I was creeping up on it,” Ward said Thursday. “I’m really proud to have played that many games, and I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given by this organization over the years. I’m looking forward to it. I feel like I have a lot of hockey left in me.”
Much was expected of Ward when the Hurricanes made him the team’s first-round draft choice in 2002. An NHL rookie in the 2005-2006 season, he relieved starter Martin Gerber in the Oct. 5 season opener at Tampa Bay and then made his first NHL start two days later at home.
The opponent was the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the game went to a shootout, the first in franchise history. Taking their best shots at Ward were the Pens’ Mario Lemieux, Ziggy Palffy and a young Sidney Crosby, but Ward denied all three for a 3-2 victory.
“My first start, and I’m playing against one of the all-time greats in Mario Lemieux,” Ward said, smiling. “Shootouts aren’t my specialties, but I was 1-0 at one time.”
Ward recalls sitting in the Canes’ room before the game having “flashbacks of all the hard work you put forth as a kid” and the sacrifices made by his parents. Gerber was Carolina’s No. 1 goalie, but much would change by season’s end.
The Hurricanes won the 2006 Stanley Cup. Ward supplanted Gerber in the playoffs, played with poise and polish and was given the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP.
Ward has a replica of the trophy in his home – a reminder of a special time and special team. He became the Canes’ No. 1 goaltender, has won 238 games and received a long-term contract that has paid him well, but the past nine years have been interrupted by injuries, and there have been seasons with disappointing finishes.
Just once since 2006 have the Canes reached the playoffs, going to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009.
“That’s obviously been very hard for me and other players who have been with this organization,” Ward said. “I said from Day One I want to be part of the solution and not the problem moving forward, and hopefully we can continue to grow as a team and organization and get better and shoot for that Stanley Cup again in the near future.”
In the 2009 playoffs, the Canes faced the New Jersey Devils in the opening round. Ward found himself opposite Martin Brodeur, who retired this season having played an NHL-record 1,266 games and with a record 691 wins.
“You wonder how he did it, because there’s a lot of wear and tear on your body,” Ward said.
Ward, who turns 31 this month, has had back and knee injuries. He once was slashed on the leg by a skate. Last season, groin injuries held him out of games.
“The thing that has impressed me the most is he has pretty much remained the same as when he came in as a kid,” said Rod Brind’Amour, the former Canes captain and now an assistant coach. “He had success as a young kid. He’s gone through a lot of ups and downs, and he still comes in every day, to me, with the same attitude and approach.
“The goalie position is tough. It’s tough to last and be successful. He’s been consistent and gives you his best effort.”
Ward committed himself to better offseason conditioning after last year, and to having a more positive attitude.
“A complete overhaul,” Ward said of his approach. “It was hitting the reset button, and it starts between the ears.”
In 37 games, Ward has a 14-19-4 record, with a 2.43 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. He has had his share of high-quality stops, the kind that yank fans out of seats and make up for teammates’ mistakes.
“He’s a calm guy, and he’s a good, quiet leader in our room,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “He gives our team lots of confidence when he’s in net.”
Ward said he’s having fun again, quickly adding, “And I still have that competitive fire.”