Cam Ward never saw it coming.
The Carolina Hurricanes asked their former Stanley Cup-winning goalie to travel to PNC Arena last fall to help make a video commemorating the 25th anniversary of the franchise’s move to North Carolina.
He obliged. Then, in walked Rod Brind’Amour.
The Canes current head coach, who was once Ward’s teammate and captain, told the retired keeper the real reason he was there: Ward was being inducted into the new Hurricanes Hall of Fame.
“Definitely a surprise,” Ward said last week. “I had no idea.”
Ward is a part of the inaugural Hall of Fame class, joining Brind’Amour, former defenseman Glen Wesley and Ron Francis, the Canes’ former captain and later general manager. He’ll be formally honored Thursday, when the Hurricanes host the Montreal Canadiens at PNC Arena.
Brind’Amour, Wesley and Francis all have their jerseys hanging in the arena rafters, their numbers retired, Ward, who wore No. 30 for 13 seasons with the Hurricanes and won the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2006, could be next. He holds nearly every team career goaltending record worth having.
“I have a lot of respect for him as a person, not just in what he did for our team and helping us win but also what he meant as a Hurricane in handling himself and representing the organization,” Brind’Amour said. “I’m happy he’s being recognized this way. It’s well-deserved.”
As a 21-year-old rookie, Ward took over from goalie Martin Gerber in the 2006 playoffs when Gerber fell ill. When the playoffs ended, Brind’Amour was holding up the Cup, the Canes were the champions and Ward had earned MVP honors.
Ward’s late-game stop against Edmonton’s Fernando Pisani in Game 7 of the Cup final still is referred to as “The Save,” and he said having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup remains a lifetime thrill.
“It really was a storybook year,” Ward said. “I know it’s a cliche to say it’s a dream come true to win the Cup, but it literally was. That’s why we play the game, for moments like that.”
A blessing and a curse
Ward later said being awarded the Conn Smythe, in a way, was both a blessing and a curse. Proud to be a part of a Cup winner and be such an integral part in the Cup run, he would shoulder high expectations when tagged as a No. 1 goalie headed to NHL stardom.
The Canes made the playoffs just once after 2006 with Ward in net — in 2008-09, when Carolina reached the Eastern Conference final. As the years passed, he became a lightning rod of sorts from some fans who believed the goalie, given a six-year, $37.8 million contract in September 2009, did not deliver as expected.
John Forslund, the Canes’ former play-by-play television announcer, called nearly all of Ward’s games with Carolina. Few have a better handle on how Ward dealt with the pressure of being a “face” of the franchise as a goalie.
“He assumed the No. 1 job and handled all of that, including an unbelievable amount of work with some teams that were good and some that were not,” Forslund said this week. ”He took a lot of heat, but he never changed his demeanor and the professional way he went about things.
“The Conn Smythe, that accomplishment, set a bar that was almost unrealistic. A lot of athletes might have come off the rails but he never did. He was very steady in his play and his demeanor and the responsibility he had.”
In 2009, Ward and the Canes had Game 7 road wins against both the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Canes were then swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference final, a disappointing end after some thrilling playoff victories.
“He carried the team,” Forslund said. “I think the second half of the ‘09 season was about as good as anybody could play in the way he carried that team into the deep playoff run until his back gave out in the conference final. And I mean he tried, but he was so injured. It was amazing he could even attempt to get through that series, but he did.”
‘Just a good, genuine dude’
Canes captain Jordan Staal was on that Penguins team in 2009 that went on to take the Cup. Three years later, he was traded to Carolina and became Ward’s teammate for the next six seasons, gaining more respect for Ward’s professionalism, work ethic and value to his team.
“Obviously he backstopped a Stanley Cup run to start, but it also was the way he carried himself his whole career here and was the backbone of the team for so long,” Staal said. “There were some tough years, but he was someone you’d pay good money to go watch play, a franchise goalie who had a helluva career.
“Just a good, genuine dude who treated everyone with the same respect and was a great guy to have in the room.”
The Hurricanes did not re-sign Ward after the 2017-18 season, and he signed a one-year free-agent contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The 2018-19 season was the last for Ward, who signed a one-day contract with Carolina so that he could retire as a Hurricane and turned “home” — to Raleigh.
Ward played 701 regular-season games in the NHL and won 334 — 668 games and 318 wins with the Hurricanes. His detractors would say his career 2.74 goals-against average and .908 save percentage were average, but he had a 2.38 GAA and .917 percentage in 41 playoff games for Carolina, winning 23, including four Game 7s. And a Cup.
“He was the very definition of clinical, elite goaltending under pressure,” said Tripp Tracy, the Canes’ TV analyst and a former goaltender.
Ward, 38, conceded letting go of hockey four years ago was tougher than expected.
“If I’m being brutally honest, yeah, it took some time,” he said. “My dad’s motto when I was playing is, ‘the more fun you have the better you do,’ and it became evident I wasn’t having that much fun toward the end, and I knew that was my time.
“It started to hurt too much to play. The body began to wear down and I knew it was time for me. In saying that, it is hard the next day to be done. Once you’re out, you’re out. That’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Ward was convinced to put on the goalie pads and mask and play in the Canes’ 2023 Alumni Game on Monday on the outdoor rink at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“I was a goaltender, so I better lace ‘em up, and my kids want to see that,” Ward said, smiling. “I’ll do it one more time.”