RALEIGH — Cam Ward’s return to Raleigh for Monday’s Hurricanes-Blackhawks game started off incredibly well, had adversity in the middle for the Chicago goalie and, ultimately, ended in loss.
In a nutshell, it was a microcosm of Ward’s time with the Hurricanes.
But unlike the Hurricanes’ overtime win at PNC Arena that will enter the statistical annals as a 3-2 OTL for Ward, the 34-year-old’s time with the franchise will be remembered by him, the organization and its fans for the good times and, in time, a forgiving gesture of the bad ones.
“It was emotional coming home,” Ward said following the game. “Obviously, you know, I have a lot to be thankful for my 13 years here and wanted to put forth a strong effort. Unfortunately, (we) came to win and it just slipped away in overtime. Almost made it happen.”
There’s no denying Ward’s place in franchise history. The pages in the Hurricanes’ record book dedicated to goalies might as well be earmarked with a CW tab: 668 regular season games, 318 wins and 27 shutouts. His 74 starts played in 2010-11 in aren’t a franchise record — that one is held by Arturs Irbe with 76 a decade earlier — but is still tied for the 16th-most by a goalie in one season in NHL history.
Ward’s greatest accomplishment, however, was also his biggest curse.
The Hurricanes’ 2006 Stanley Cup win — and Ward’s accompanying Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP — set a bar for his career which was impossible to vault over a second time.
But it was still enough to make him a franchise icon.
“To me, he’ll always be special,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Monday night. “He helped me realize one of the dreams I’ve had my whole life — you know, it was to win a Stanley Cup. He was part of that. So I know what he put into this organization.”
Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, who won his first of three Cups in 2006, has expressed how important it is in the twilight of his career to restore the franchise to greatness — once reached with Ward in between the pipes.
“He’s a guy that obviously I have a real soft spot for,” Williams said of Ward. “You win together, you always remember together, and you hold that bond together. And that will never go away.”
It became clear in recent years that the Ward era in Raleigh was ready to come to a close, and there is plenty of blame to go around for the franchise’s futility during much of his tenure with the team.
Ward reached the postseason just twice, going all the way in 2006 and carrying the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009, losing to eventual champion Pittsburgh.
At times brilliant, other times overworked, and often overmatched, Ward’s Hurricanes career is akin to a teenager’s first romance. Ward, the organization and its fans will always look back fondly on that first kiss, but also remember that it was often a marriage of convenience — two sides hoping to rekindle that spark that seemed so powerful and essential, yet faded in time.
Ward had made clear he wanted to finish his career in Raleigh, but the team’s reboot — a new owner and front office desperate to not make the same mistakes past regimes made — didn’t include him.
He’s not guaranteed an NHL job following this year. And since Chicago’s two-game series with Carolina is over, Monday’s game could very well have been his last as a player at PNC Arena.
“I realize that you never know how much time you have left in your career, and who knows if I’ll be playing another game here down the road,” Ward said. “But that’s something that’s in the future and you can’t really control the future, you just kind of take care of the present, and I’m trying to do that.
As for his past in Raleigh, the place he and his family call home, Ward seemed pretty steadfast.
“You feel blessed and fortunate for all the good things that happened.”