It was the spring of 2004 and Cam Ward was on fire, on an outright roll that he would emulate two years later in the Stanley Cup final.
Guarding the twine for an offensively challenged Red Deer Rebels squad, Ward was repelling rubber from here, there and everywhere while leading his team into the third round of the playoffs.
The WHL and CHL goaltender of the year was particularly brilliant in a second-round upset of the Moose Jaw Warriors, almost single-handedly winning three games on the road.
Ward turned in respective 39- and 42-save performances as the Rebels took the first two games 4-3 and 3-2 in the antiquated Moose Jaw Civic Centre, but Red Deer then lost twice at home — 4-2 and 2-1 — shifting the momentum back in the Warriors’ favour.
Again, it was Ward to the rescue. The Carolina Hurricanes first-round pick in the 2002 NHL entry draft was an outright thief in Game 5, turning aside 53 shots in a game that was decided by a goal from defenceman Derek Meech in the second overtime period.
Ward then stopped all 37 shots he faced in 3-0 Game 6 triumph at the Centrium.
Ward was, in essence, a brick wall to WHL shooters. He led the Rebels to the league final in 2002 and ’03, and was never better than he was in the 2004 Eastern Conference series versus the Warriors.
“Cam took us to the (league) finals each of the previous two years and our 2003-04 team wasn’t as deep a team,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “We got beat in the (league) semis that year but he was awesome.”
The Rebels, as Sutter noted, fell in six games to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the conference final, marking a bittersweet ending to Ward’s WHL career.
He went out in fine form, however, considering the Rebels — admittedly still blessed with all-star defencemen Meech and Dion Phaneuf — were re-stocking their shelves after three dominant seasons.
“We’ve come a long way in a rebuilding season,” Ward told Gino Reda in a Globe and Mail Junior Hockey Magazine on-air interview during the 2004 playoff run. “I think from Christmas on we’ve continued to develop on a consistent basis. We’ve come hard each and every night and have been rewarded.
“It’s a credit to the guys in the dressing room because they’ve really stuck with the program and jumped on board.”
Ward also credited his teammates for helping him become a (ultimately successful) finalist for the WHL goaltender of the year award.
“It’s nice to be recognized, but every goaltender knows that you can’t do it without your teammates and the team comes first,” he said. “Something like that is nice to have on the side, but most definitely the most important thing to me is how the team does and how we succeed in the playoffs.”
The Sherwood Park product was a fourth-round pick of the Rebels in the 1999 WHL bantam draft and didn’t join the club until he was 17. But when he arrived he was ready to take over the No. 1 job from Shane Bendera, who was an all-important piece of the Rebels’ Memorial Cup winning team and the MVP of the WHL playoffs prior to the national championship.
Bendera was dealt to the Kelowna Rockets in November of 2001 and the Rebels crease was Ward’s to keep.
“We traded our Memorial Cup goalie, Shane Bendera, because we had Cam,” said Sutter.
“We could have kept Cam the year we won the Memorial Cup but I didn’t like the fact we would be keeping a 16-year-old here when I didn’t know how much he would play.
“We put him back in midget (Sherwood Park AAA) and let him develop. He came back the next year and he was exactly what we were hoping he would be. He was awesome.”
Ward’s numbers during his rookie WHL season were impressive — a 2.27 goals-against average with a .911 save percentage as an Eastern Conference all-star. More importantly, he won 30 games during the regular season and 14 more in the playoffs where Red Deer fell to Kootenay in the league final.
The Carolina Hurricanes were convinced that he could be their goaltender of the future and selected the 18-year-old in the first round — 25th overall — of the 2002 NHL entry draft.
Back with the Rebels for a second season, Ward improved on his statistics, posting a 2.10 GAA and .920 save percentage. Once again, he back-stopped his team on a lengthy playoff run that ended with a six-game, league final loss to the Kelowna Rockets.
“Cam Ward was our glue to it all. He’d stop 40 to 50 shots a night,” said Sutter, who credited Ward’s success to his laid-back, unflappable personality.
“He just quietly went about his business,” said the Rebels boss. “He had a lot of emotion, but he was never negative, he always had a positive outlook. He was just very focused and very professional in his preparation.
“Wardo was top notch, obviously the best goaltender who ever played here.”
Sutter didn’t see a lot of fiery emotion in Ward until the night he pulled the goaltender — at that time in his second season — during a game at the Centrium. To this day, he’s convinced Ward became an even better netminder due to the incident that followed.
“I pulled him halfway through the second period and he threw his stick down on the bench and just stared at me,” said Sutter.
The two argued in the dressing room following the game and Sutter reminded his stopper that he wasn’t any different than any other member of the team.
“He was very emotional, he felt embarrassed because I’d pulled him in front of the home crowd,” said Sutter. “The next day he came to the rink and said he felt bad about what happened the night before. I told him that getting mentally tougher would make him a good pro.
“If you’re going to be lights out in the NHL, if you’re going to be a 50- to 60-game guy, you’re going to have to go through adversity and learn how to deal with it and handle it better.
“That was the first real adversity he’d dealt with. He really took (the one-on-one dialogue) to heart and like his dad (Ken) said, that was a turning point for him in his career. I never take anything personally with the players, I like players who are engaged like that, who are intense. He wanted to be the best and you knew that.
“Cam and I still talk about it, and yet it was a real great moment for him, and it was for me, too, of learning.”
Ward moved into the pro ranks with Carolina’s AHL affiliate — the Lowell Lock Monsters — in the fall of 2004 and never looked back.
He was summoned to the Hurricanes during the 2005-06 season and was a spring standout as the team captured the Stanley Cup in a thrilling seven-game series versus the Edmonton Oilers.
It was a double-thrill ride for Ward, who was also awarded the Conn Smythe as the NHL playoffs MVP, an astounding feat for a rookie netminder.
“He got challenged mentally the year they won the Stanley Cup,” said Sutter. “He got thrown to the wolves. He came right out of the American League, they threw him in there and he went on a run like there was no tomorrow.
“To be able to do that, with stakes that high and as a young guy . . . to be mentally strong enough to do that is amazing. He was as cool as a cucumber, but I wasn’t surprised. I had him for a number of years and I knew what he was like after we had our talk. He was such a mentally strong player after that.”
Ward is now in his 13th full season with the Hurricanes and over the years has been a candidate for the Canadian Olympic team, has won a gold and silver medal with Canada at the world championship tournament and played in an NHL all-star game.
“Even after all these years with the same team, he’s still a pretty steady goaltender, and it’s his personality that allows him to be that way,” said Sutter. “He’s very professional in how he does everything.
“He’s also a very intelligent guy and that has a lot to do with his upbringing. His mom and dad are just absolutely awesome people.”
Clearly, his parents instilled some important qualities in their son, who was a finalist for the WHL humanitarian award after serving as an elementary school teacher’s assistant and being a part of the drug squad program and working with Red Deer pond hockey.
“I think that’s the most important award to receive, just because you want to give back to the community and the kids as much as you can,” Ward said after being named as the Eastern Conference nominee for the honour.
“You are very fortunate to be playing at the level you are and to have the talents you have, and you want to give back as much as you can. I take a lot of pride in doing that.”
To this day, Sutter thinks highly of Ward and feels fortunate that he was able to coach such a well-rounded athlete.
“He was athletic and he had a great mindset for a goalie. He was just so focused,” said Sutter.
“He was easy-going, but you knew how he prepared. He was dialled in and was self-driven to be the best.”
• Top 25 in review: 25. Shane Bendera (1999-2002); 24. Shawn McNeil (1997-99); 23. Brad Leeb (1995-99); 22. Matthew Dumba (2010-13); 21. Alex Petrovic (2008-12); 20. Colin Fraser (2001-05); 19. Haydn Fleury (2012-16); 18. Boyd Gordon (1999-2003); 17. Jesse Wallin (1994-98); 16. Brandon Sutter (2004-08); 15. Darcy Kuemper (2008-11); 14. Martin Hanzal (2006-07); 13. Ross Lupaschuk (1999-2001); 12. Kyle Wanvig (1999-2001); 11. B.J. Young (1994-97); 10. Derek Meech (2000-04); 9. Jeff Woywitka (1999-2003); 8. Colby Armstrong (1999-2002); 7. Darren Van Impe (1992-94); 6. Jim Vandermeer (1997-2001); 5. Arron Asham (1994-98); 4. Justin Mapletoft (1996-2001); 3. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2008-11); 2. Dion Phaneuf (2001-05); 1. Cam Ward (2001-04).
• Honourable mention: James Reimer (2005-08); Doug Lynch (1999-2003); Bryce Thoma (1999-2003); Greg Schmidt (1994-97); Craig Reichert (1992-94); Matt Ellison (2002-03); Carsen Germyn (2001-03); Mikhail Yakubov (2001-02).
• Goaltender Patrik Bartosak (2011-14) was an otherwise obvious choice to make the list and defenceman Mike McBain (1993-97) was a solid candidate, but both were eliminated from consideration after recently encountering serious legal problems.
• In order to qualify for the top 25 list a player had to be in a Rebels jersey for at least one full season, eliminating the likes of Terry Ryan and Martin Erat.