Aaron Ward knows what it feels like to hoist the Cup. The Bruins defenseman has done so three times, having been a part of championship teams in Detroit, in 1997 and 1998, and Carolina, in 2006. Originally taken by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the 1991 draft, Ward has played parts of 15 NHL seasons since debuting with the Red Wings in 1994, going on to see action with the Hurricanes, Rangers and Bruins after seven years in Hockeytown. A 36-year-old native of Windsor, Ontario, Ward brought his veteran, blue-line presence to Boston during the 2007 season when he arrived in a trade-deadline deal for Paul Mara. Ward talked about his time in the game, including three memorable Stanley Cups and some notable former teammates, prior to taking the ice for a late-season contest as the Bruins prepared for the playoffs.
David Laurila: If your career were to end tomorrow, how would you look back at your time in the game?
Aaron Ward: I think I would look back at it feeling fortunate that I had an opportunity to play with as many great people and in so many great situations. I got to be a part of some great organizations, so I’d look back with no regrets.
DL: If you had to pick three moments that really stand out, what would they be?
AW: Stanley Cup one, two and three. That’s pretty easy! But no, I think the first one would be winning the third Cup, in Carolina, because I had a son who was able to be on the ice with me and hold the Cup, and I was able to put my daughter in the Cup. That season, in and of itself, was pretty special. Number two would be the first Cup I won in Detroit. The third most exciting experience would have been going to the Stanley Cup in 2002, with the Carolina Hurricanes, because we were a team of nomads. We were kind of comparable to the Bad News Bears. No one really expected any level of success to be achieved by that team, but we were able to put together something pretty special.
DL: Was that team at all similar to the 2008-2009 Bruins?
AW: The 2006 team was. In 2002 we lost to Detroit. 2006 I think is similar in that we were a sum-of-the-parts team. We were a group of guys that collectively were able to do some pretty good things. When we’ve had our struggles we’ve managed to show ourselves that it’s because we’ve more or less gone into an individuals game rather than keeping it a group effort.
DL: What is your stand-out moment when it comes to personal accomplishments?
AW: I’d have to go with scoring the first goal in Game 7 against Edmonton in 2006. One of my teammates here, Mark Recchi, actually had one of the assists on that goal. That’s probably my biggest moment.
DL: Do you ever wonder how your career might have gone had you not been traded from Winnipeg to Detroit?
AW: I don’t know. You don’t really think at this stage, 16 years into a pro career, about what could have been. It was obviously a great thing that I was given an opportunity to go to Detroit, and I thank Mike Smith for trading me there. That gave me a chance to not only further my career, but to play with guys like Steve Yzerman -- a Hall of Famer -- Mark Howe, Niklas Lidstrom. Those guys really taught me a lot about the game. So that’s really a tough question. I’ve honestly never thought about what could have been.
DL: What was it like playing with Steve Yzerman?
AW: As you get older and older, you’re able to absorb some of your experiences and I’ve come to the realization that he was the epitome of professionalism. He’s one of the best captains I’ve ever had. He played the game the way he expected other guys to play it. He was selfless at all costs; he always put the team above himself. Basically, he’s a guy I learned how to be professional from. I was young and I didn’t always…sometimes when you’re young you think you know a fair amount more than you really do. As I’ve gotten older, I’m still absorbing some of the lessons he was trying to teach me.
DL: As a defenseman, what was it like to step on the ice for the first time and be around a guy like Paul Coffey?
AW: It’s funny, some of the guys you step on the ice with taught you in hockey schools and you’ve seen them on TV, so they’re more or less icons that you’ve become accustomed to watching rather than playing with. You really have to make that adjustment and focus on the fact that now it’s your job. Essentially, you have to keep yourself focused and not get caught up in the fact that…when I was in Detroit, there were about seven or eight guys who are going to be going into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
DL: Paul Coffey was obviously a far more offensive-minded player than you are. Despite the difference in style, did you still learn from him?
AW: I think that most of my lessons learned were from guys who played similar styles, like Mike Ramsay, Mark Howe and Slava Fetisov. Those guys were more stay-back-in-your-zone, take-care-of-your-defensive-responsibilities style of players. It’s tough to assimilate to another guy’s style when you don’t possess the same kind of skating ability or offensive prowess. You watch him in awe, but you don’t really try to mimic too much of what he does.
DL: What was it like playing with Vladimir Konstantinov?
AW: He was one of the most unique personalities in terms of…everyday he came to the rink and he was so happy to be there. He was a quiet guy, he had a quiet demeanor, but when he stepped on the ice, all of a sudden he evolved into something that was almost not human. He became a destroyer. His mental makeup on the ice was that he was willing to go through a wall to win and get that puck.
DL: How did Konstantinov compare to guys like Sean Avery and Jarkko Ruutu in that respect?
AW: The situation is different, because as a defenseman, to be an agitator and be as effective as he was took a special talent. It’s easier, as a forward, to be an irritant on the ice because you’re playing everywhere. You can pretty much go anywhere, from deep in your own zone all the way into the other team’s zone. As a defenseman, you have to be a little more responsible, because if you take chances you can get burned that much easier. If you step out of position to really take a guy out, or get in his face, that can affect the direction of the team, so it takes a special breed to know when the right time is, and he was able to do that.
DL: What is the most memorable fight you’ve had in your career?
AW: I think it was the one with Brent Severyn where I pulled his jersey off, in the Colorado game, and realized that not only didn’t he have a jersey on, he didn’t have shoulder pads or elbow pads on. I knew that I was about to meet my maker because there was nothing to grab onto to, and he absolutely pummeled me into a pulp. That was my first growing experience in knowing that these guys are paid to fight because they’re very skilled at it. I knew that I was going to have to think long and hard before I did it again.
DL: Is Bob Probert the toughest guy you’ve ever played with?
AW: Bob Probert might have been the toughest, but the guy I played with who inflicted the most damage was Joe Kocur. It’s one of those things where…it’s like talking about a superhero who has a magic hand. If Joey ever got his right hand loose, in any way, and he made contact with your face, it was lights out.
DL: Is it pretty safe to assume that you always know when guys like that are on the ice?
AW: Oh yeah. And the funny thing was, when I first started playing the game, everybody had someone like that. Top to bottom, your fourth line usually consisted of three top-notch tough guys. In the old Norris Division that we used to play in, Chicago had a lineup of toughness. Toronto had a lineup of toughness. It just always seemed like…those weren’t always enjoyable games to play.
DL: When people talk about your time with the Rangers, it always seems to center around your thoughts on Jaromir Jagr. What was your New York experience like beyond that?
AW: New York was tough. Honestly, some situations aren’t conducive to certain players and I had a tough time in New York. Admittedly so. It was a tough system for me to get acclimated to. The Jagr situation did get a little overblown. Like anywhere else, there’s sometimes some housekeeping that has to be taken care of. With the competitive nature of the game being what it is, sometimes players are going to have disagreements, but I think too much attention is given to that situation. Like anything else, when a team is struggling, players are disposable and that’s what happened. There were a number of players that went at the trade deadline that year.
DL: How do Scotty Bowman and Claude Julien compare as coaches? Not so much their personalities, but how they approach the game?
AW: They’re both team-concept guys. With them, it’s team first and individual second. They treat the team as the most important focus, overall. No single player’s interest is taken into consideration above that. It’s always the best interest of the team in mind.
DL: When Julien was fired by the Devils, late in the 2007 season, a reason given was that he didn’t have the team ready for the playoffs. What does “ready for the playoffs” mean to you?
AW: That’s a good question. It’s a good question because you can really only answer it if you’re in that locker room. Every situation is different; every team is different. And you never know if…I think that, at the time, they were in a little bit of a skid, and sometimes people search too deep for answers. I think it was Lou Lamoriello who said that, and you’d have to ask him. But from my perspective, in this locker room, that is not the situation. We’re on a positive upswing right now, getting ready for the playoffs. There’s no question that we’re ready.
DL: Is “ready for the playoffs” a lot about confidence?
AW: Again, every team has a different makeup in the locker room. Maybe you have a lot of youth. Here, we have a good balance. For us, ready means that the veterans are conveying the messages to the young guys that it’s not good enough to start the day the playoffs start…to begin the focus. You have to start focusing earlier. You need to do that a week or two before, in order to prepare yourself for the fact that there will be more mental challenges presented. There will be tougher games that will really wear on your body. There will be things you’ll encounter that you’ll have to overcome, more so than you will in the regular season.
DL: Why did the 2005-2006 Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup?
AW: Because we didn’t listen to our critics. We were able to focus on the fact that…we assumed the underdog role to begin with, and as soon as we became a legitimate team we were able to kind of transition our thinking into the mentality of a future champion. We realized that people were now gunning for us, that they were now more and better prepared when they played us in games. I think that coach Laviolette really did a great job of helping us go from the underdog role to the capable-of-winning role.
DL: You’re involved in charity work, including an event for Massachusetts General Hospital called “Cuts For a Cause.” Why is giving back to the community important to you?
AW: I learned at any early age, when I was at the University of Michigan, even though I was still in college, that you can really use your place in the community to help others. In college, we used to go visit hospitals and one of the things that stuck with me was that your presence…you don’t have to bring people gifts. You don’t have to bring magical things to their day. Just the fact that you’re there, and show that you care, means a lot. The event I do is kind of a spin off of what St. Baldrick’s does. It’s a charity where we shave our heads, kind of as a show of solidarity with children who are stricken with cancer. It’s always good, in the community you’re in, to show that you’re a member of that community and you care a lot about what goes on in your environment.
DL: Any final thoughts?
AW: It goes back to your first question: I really feel fortunate. I’ve been given an opportunity to play a game and have a career with it. Most people get up and do 9-to-5. When you hear the stigma attached to athletes whining, complaining and being prima donnas, I think there is a healthy population of guys that do feel lucky to have the opportunity to play a game, and understand that we’re a select few. There are about 700 people in the world who get to do what we get to do, and we feel fortunate. I certainly do.