The harder part for Cam Ward, once his long-anticipated return to PNC Arena was over, having experienced more or less the set of emotions he expected to experience, was the uncertainty. After all those years with the Carolina Hurricanes, was coming back here for the first time also his last?
“Who knows if I’ll be playing a game here down the road?” Ward mused afterward, and that sentiment – the hard-won realism of a late-career professional athlete – was flavored with as much winsomeness as all the other predictable sentiments surrounding his return as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday.
It wasn’t the return Ward wanted, even though he played well in what turned out to be a 3-2 overtime loss for a team that hasn’t won in weeks, and that seemed fitting since his exit wasn’t what he wanted, either. His legacy here is so mixed – a consummate citizen who was asked at times to do too much, didn’t do enough himself at others and had moments of unadulterated glory but nevertheless became a scapegoat for the ineptitude of an entire franchise – that it’s only right that his return is a jumbled-up mix of good and bad as well.
His genuine appreciation for the video tribute the team offered at the first commercial break, and the applause that accompanied it, a majority-but-not-quite-total standing ovation, is probably closer to how Ward will be remembered here in the long run, after the bitterness fades. It’s unfortunate that the team’s lack of success inevitably poisoned his final few years here, leaving him to bear the brunt of fan discontent long after he was supposed to transition to a backup role. The incompetence of first Eddie Lack and then Scott Darling left the Hurricanes relying on Ward despite their best intentions.
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The Hurricanes are still looking for answers in net – although Darling played well Monday, his best start of the season – and the Blackhawks are looking for answers, period. They have now gone eight games without a win, and Ward did what he could. He gave up a pair of power-play goals – one off a faceoff, the other off an Andrei Svechnikov power rush down the right wing – and was left defenseless on Sebastian Aho’s overtime winner.
“We’re happy for him he came in here and played the way he did,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said, fully aware of the emotional stakes for his goalie.
And those emotional stakes were high: Ward spent almost half of his life here, won a Stanley Cup, got married, raised a family, started a winery, set every franchise goaltending record. To whatever degree he was responsible – or, more accurately, held responsible – for the Hurricanes’ playoff purgatory, history will record more of the good than the bad, and above all else it will record the honor which he performed, in good and bad.
Whether his jersey goes into the rafters or not someday, and there’s a case to be made either way, there’s a place of honor for him here, just as there is for Eric Staal, another player whose accomplishments with the Hurricanes are tinged with the frustration of the era in which he played.
All of that contributed to Ward’s trepidation approaching this night and his relief when it was over, the result aside.
He meant a lot to this team, and this team meant everything to him, until it didn’t. That’s just how it goes sometimes. Professional sports makes and breaks affiliations, and it’s a brutal business that way, but bonds built over more than a decade aren’t as easily severed.
“I care about those guys,” Ward said. “I wish them the best. But it would have been nice to get a win against them.”