A little more than seven months after playing his last game for the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena, goaltender Cam Ward returns Monday with something else in mind: beating the Hurricanes.
He’ll step off the team bus with the Chicago Blackhawks, dress in the cramped visitors locker room and will be the starting goalie. The Blackhawks, having lost seven straight games, having fired Joel Quenneville as coach, badly need a spark and are looking to Ward to provide it in his return game at PNC Arena.
“It will be weird,” Canes center Jordan Staal said Sunday. “I’ve seen him in that Hurricanes jersey for so long and so has everyone else. it will be weird, but it’s a business and it’s part of the game.”
For 13 seasons, all Ward wanted was for the Canes to win. He was drafted by the Hurricanes, a first-round pick in, and won 341 regular-season and playoff games. No Carolina goalie has won more.
In 2006, as a 21-year-old rookie, Ward’s nerveless play in net was big part of the Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup. While many assumed the Canes captain, Rod Brind’Amour, would be awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP, Ward was the choice.
The years passed quickly. The Canes went to the playoffs just once, in 2009. Last July, with the Canes under new ownership and with a new general manager, the decision was made to make a change and make Ward an unrestricted free agent.
No longer would PNC Arena be his home office. No longer was the Hurricanes locker room his haven.
Brind’Amour, as much as anyone, appreciates what Ward did for the franchise, calling him the “consummate professional.” Now the Canes’ head coach, he was pained to see his old teammate, his friend, leave in free agency even as he understood the team’s desire to have a new look in net.
“He came in as a young kid and was really good,” Brind’Amour said Sunday. “He helped get this organization on the right track, figuring out how to win. He was just a professional, all the way through the good and the bad.”
Ward stepped in
There was good and bad. At his best, calm and composed in net, Ward could be as effective as nearly any goalie in the league. At his worst, Ward had a tendency to allow too many “soft” goals and conceded that shootouts -- the difference between one and two points -- were always a struggle.
A year ago, with Scott Darling badly struggling under the mantle of being the Canes’ No. 1 goalie, Ward stepped in to give his team reassuring starts. The team played with a different vibe with Ward in net.
“In the room, he could be the prankster and be entertaining,’ Staal said. “At the same time, his play was very solid, very steady.
“He’s another great role model and a really great person who really dug into this community and showed what being a pro and being a great athlete is all about.”
Ward helped raise funds for various non-profits in the Triangle. His “Cam’s Champs” program provided a suite at home games for special needs athletes and he supported Special Olympics.
“He’ll always be a part of this organization,” Brind’Amour said. “He put his stamp on this place.”
Signed with Blackhawks
Ward, who signed a one-year contract with the Blackhawks, still owns his family home in Raleigh. He still has a beach place at Surf City. “We’ve established roots,” he said.
All of which makes coming back to PNC Arena a bit bittersweet. As Ward put it, “I really don’t know what my emotions will be. It’s almost like you feel you’re on a long-distance trip right now to Chicago and coming home for a short visit.”
Ward will be focused only on winning come game time. He won’t be standing in the north-end crease when the National Anthem is played -- his pregame spot for so many games -- but he will be wearing No. 30 and he will be looking to stop pucks.
“It’s like going to see an ex-girlfriend,” Canes captain Justin Williams said Monday. “You want to show them you still have it. Make them a little jealous.
“Listen, Cam is wanting to come in and show us he still has it and put a goose-egg on us, but we’re going to have other plans.”
Ward was able to see and socialize with several of those with the Canes when the two teams played Thursday in Chicago. It was Jeremy Colliton’s first game as the Blackhawks head coach after the firing of Quenneville and the Canes jumped to a 4-0 lead before winning 4-3.
Corey Crawford was in net for Chicago and again Saturday as the Blackhawks were blanked 4-0 in a road game against the Philadelphia Flyers, and have lost their last seven (0-6-1). Now, they’re turning to Ward to beat his old team.
The Canes, after the win in Chicago, were beaten at home Saturday by the Detroit Red Wings, who won 4-3 in a shootout.
The Canes are expected to have a video-board tribute to Ward during Monday’s game, and Ward is hoping not to get teary-eyed, especially if he’s in net with work to do. He arrived at the arena Monday for the team’s morning skate to find a “Thank You Cam!” collage of photos sent in by Canes fans in a hallway.
“Oddly, you feel some normalcy just for being here so long, for 13 years,” Ward said after the skate. “I’m sure come game time it will feel different and emotional. But in a sense I’m happy to be back.”
Asked what he misses most about the Hurricanes, Ward said, “Oh, man. I think it’s the people. The ones you see every day. Oh, man, the relationships.
“I’m happy to be with Chicago and it has been a great opportunity for me. It’s still early and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year. But it’s the relationships I miss the most.”
On April 7, Ward was surrounded by Hurricanes after a 3-2 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at PNC Arena, ending Carolina’s season. This time, he’s hoping it’s Blackhawks.