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Cam Ward’s Carolina Hurricanes legacy defines an era for the franchise

Through highs and lows, the Canes’ most accomplished goaltender saw it all in his 13 seasons with the franchise.

Jamie Kellner

Editor’s note: This story was written last season when Cam Ward signed with the Chicago Blackhawks following 13 seasons with the Hurricanes. We republish it today in light of Ward signing a one-day contract to retire from the NHL as a Hurricane.

“Have Fun.”

Cam Ward writes those words on every stick he plays with. He has them inscribed on his mask. Sage advice from his father early in his junior hockey career, the phrase is less mantra than reminder that the game is just that.

For 13 seasons Ward wrote those words on his sticks as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes. If Eric Staal was the Hurricanes’ identity, as I said in this space when he was traded two years ago, then Ward was the Hurricanes’ standard-bearer. In those 13 years, Ward was as synonymous with his team’s net as Martin Brodeur, his idol and frequent playoff adversary, was with the New Jersey Devils’. As Ward went, so went the Hurricanes, to improbable highs and the lowest of lows.

A list of the players who spent more than Ward’s 13 seasons with the Hurricanes franchise, including the years in Hartford, makes for some remarkably light reading. Here now, we present that list:

  1. Ron Francis, 16

That’s it. That’s the list.

Two hundred seventy-two goaltenders have played at least one NHL game since Ward made his debut on opening night of the 2005-06 season. Of those, 267 played fewer than Ward’s 668 games. The only four with more: Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Jamie Kellner

Ward is the only goaltender in franchise history to win 300 games. He holds the club record for both games played and wins, more than doubling second-place Arturs Irbe’s totals in each category. Among qualifying goalies, only Trevor Kidd, Anton Khudobin and Kevin Weekes top Ward’s .909 career save percentage. They combined for seven total seasons with the team. Ward has six years on them by himself.

Although Staal was drafted a year later and immediately claimed a spot on the roster, Ward’s selection with the penultimate choice in the first round of the 2002 NHL Draft marked a watershed moment. For only the second time in franchise history, and the first time since the Whalers had drafted Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 1995, the team spent a first round pick on a goaltender. They didn’t miss with Giguere, an eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner in his own right who was traded for Gary Roberts in the summer of 1997. They couldn’t miss with Ward, either.

They didn’t.

Ward spent two more seasons with WHL Red Deer before turning professional and joining the Lowell Lock Monsters in 2004, just in time for the lockout that wiped out the NHL season that year. Lowell was stacked with young talent, including Staal, Mike Commodore, Chuck Kobasew, Chad LaRose and Mark Giordano, and the team’s 100-point season ended in a second round playoff upset to Providence. But it was another future teammate, Michael Leighton, that provided the foil for perhaps the most bizarre moment of Ward’s career.

On December 11, 2004, a group of Hurricanes fans traveled north to Norfolk to watch the Lock Monsters face the Norfolk Admirals. They were treated to a 5-1 Lowell win that almost no one remembers, because the game also featured a line brawl that saw Ward and Leighton square off:

It wasn’t the only time Ward would show aggression simmering beneath his otherwise placid exterior. Those sticks with “Have Fun” on them were summarily destroyed at times when playing goal for the Hurricanes was anything but.

And when players got too close to him, especially if their name was Patric Hornqvist, Ward boiled over.

When Ward reached the NHL in 2005, he earned the start in the season opener, just in time to see the Tampa Bay Lightning lift their 2004 Stanley Cup championship banner that had been delayed a year by the lockout. Two nights later, he was scheduled to have the night off, but then Martin Gerber suffered an injury and Ward was pressed into action against the Pittsburgh Penguins and their rookie sensation, Sidney Crosby.

Penguins v Hurricanes Photo By Grant Halverson/Getty Images

By now, you know the story. In the Hurricanes’ first-ever shootout, Ward stopped Mario Lemieux, Ziggy Palffy and Crosby, earning his first NHL win. It was the start of a magical season that ended with Ward, again pressed into service in relief of Gerber, becoming the first rookie goaltender since Patrick Roy to win both the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

Just as soon as Ward was handed the reins and made the unquestioned starter, though, he fell back to Earth. His regular-season numbers in the Cup year were never great, and it took him four years to get his skates underneath him in the grind of an NHL season. But finally, in 2008-09, everything came together.

The four-season stretch from 2008 to 2012 was Ward’s peak with the Hurricanes. 60% of his starts were quality starts over those four years. He played nearly every night. He caught fire in 2009, backstopping the Canes to the Eastern Conference Final after a pair of seven-game series wins over New Jersey and Boston.

He even scored a goal. (Really!)

But, as so often was the case, as Ward went, so went the Hurricanes. Even in the larger narrative of those solid numbers, the start of the 2009-10 season was a nightmare for Ward. He began the season 2-9-3 with a sub-.900 save percentage, and then the bad season turned horrifying.

November 7, 2009, was the night I covered my first Hurricanes road game, in Columbus. Midway through the first period, the Canes watched in horror as Ward’s leg was cut by the skate of Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash, sending him to the hospital and causing him to miss a month of action. I will never forget the silence that permeated the Hurricanes’ locker room that night.

By the time Ward returned to the ice in December, the season was already a lost cause. An upper-body injury late in the season only served to hasten the inevitable, and despite Ward posting a .931 after returning, the Canes could never recover.

So what did Ward do as an encore? He turned in the best season of his career the next year. With 37 wins, a career-best .923 save percentage and nearly 23 goals saved above league average, Ward did everything he could to help the Canes return to the playoffs, ultimately falling one game short. On a team where Jay Harrison played 20 minutes a night and no player came within 25 points of Eric Staal’s 70, Ward’s standout performance nearly singlehandedly kept the Canes in the playoff conversation.

As far back as the 2012 offseason, when the Canes brought Dan Ellis to town to back Ward up, there was an understanding that the workload that Ward had shouldered over the previous four seasons was untenable. But with the exception of Anton Khudobin wrestling the starting job away from Ward late in the 2013-14 season, the team always needed to turn back to Ward. Rightly or wrongly, he was perceived as the least bad option.

It wore Ward down, and it wore the fanbase down. For years the complaint was the same: if Ward could play backup’s minutes, he’d be fine. Yet he was never able to do that, first being thrown into a 1A/1B setup with Ellis, Khudobin or Eddie Lack that inevitably ended in Ward being designated the 1A, then finally being named the unquestioned backup behind Scott Darling. And when Darling went south, who was left to turn to?

By the end of the 2017-18 season, it had reached a breaking point. The Hurricanes couldn’t afford to move on from Darling. They weren’t about to hand the starter’s crease back to Ward. So off he went to Chicago after 13 seasons, and while it’s fair to say he shoulders some blame for what that had happened up to that point, his departure was less a commentary on his play and more a realization that there was simply not a fit on the Canes’ roster for him anymore.

While Ward had moments of fleeting wizardry in the years since 2012, they were few and far between. But in that four-season stretch, Ward certainly lived up to his first-round pedigree.

Jamie Kellner

But the story of Cam Ward doesn’t end with statistics, and it doesn’t end with destroying sticks, and it certainly doesn’t end with an uneasy parting of the ways after spending more than a third of his life in North Carolina. An intensely private man who strove to keep his personal life separate from his hockey career, Ward’s interests outside the rink were varied but no less influential than any number of players with more public personas.

Ward and his wife Cody purchased a suite at PNC Arena in 2006, and began a program of honoring and recognizing nonprofits that serve people with disabilities through sports. Thousands of people benefitted from the Wards’ generosity, and “Cam’s Champs” was an in-game fixture for twelve seasons, in particular spotlighting various Special Olympics chapters.

Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

It was an ironic twist, for a player who devoted his off-the-ice time to the special needs population, when Cam and Cody’s son, Nolan, was born deaf in 2010. Ward talked about his son’s journey in a memorable 2016 Players’ Tribune article, and shared the ice with him as the starter of the game in February of 2018, on a night Ward was honored for his 300th career victory. Like so many before him, Ward became a family man in his time in North Carolina, raising two children here and repeatedly referring to Raleigh as home. It will be no surprise to see him back here when his career is over.

Ward, also a prodigious oenophile, teamed up with his teammate Tim Gleason to establish the Vineyard 36 winery, and if you’re into wine the way Ward is and signed up for the winery’s mailing list, you might just get an email from the man every so often.

Ward’s career is far from Hall of Fame caliber. But it is almost certain that he will be the final player in Hurricanes history to wear number 30 - that is, until Nolan, himself a goaltender who wears his dad’s number, finds his way onto the Hurricanes’ roster. Similar to a fellow Stanley Cup champion, Glen Wesley, Cam Ward’s Hurricanes career is one of longevity, moments of brilliance and a sustained period of above-average play standing out as highlights of the franchise’s second-longest serving player. Wesley’s number hangs in the PNC Arena rafters, and one day Ward’s will likely join it.

His dad’s advice was wise indeed. In so many ways, both on and off the ice, Cam Ward ends his Hurricanes career having had fun.