The NHL lost one of its better people, and best interviews, of the last decade or so when Aaron Ward announced his retirement after more than 13 seasons at the game’s highest level today.
Ward, 37, played in more than 839 career games and won three Stanley Cup championships — one with Carolina and two with Detroit. In a Bruins uniform, he skated in 150 regular-season games and 17 postseason contests, as he helped restore the Bruins to a place of prominence in the NHL hierarchy.
The Bruins were on their way to a second straight playoff-less spring post-lockout and post-Joe Thornton when general manager Peter Chiarelli made a deadline-day deal with the New York Rangers to swap Paul Mara for Ward. Mara had struggled at both ends of the rink in his return to his hometown, while Ward had had a very public dispute with Rangers star Jaromir Jagr. What looked like just a swap of struggling veteran defenseman soon proved to be a huge deal in terms of molding the makeup — off and on the ice — of Chiarelli’s Bruins.
It didn’t take long for Ward to display his gift for gab. Sometimes he could be light-hearted, but more important for the Bruins’ odds of success, he proved to be a player that could criticize himself and his teammates honestly and also demanded accountability from everyone in a Bruins uniform. Over the last couple seasons, players like Shawn Thornton and Mark Recchi have emerged as voices in the Bruins dressing room that take some of the heat off quiet captains Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron. Ward was one of the first players to fill that role once he landed in the Hub.
Ward’s willingness to speak his mind definitely rubbed head coach Claude Julien and the rest of the Bruins’ brass the wrong way a few times over the years, but Boston really needed someone to distract attention when things were going wrong or going right. Ward embodied the Bruins’ desired approach of never getting too high or too low, and that rubbed off on his teammates — even as his cohorts were making fun of him for constantly catering to the media.
Last summer, Chiarelli dealt Ward back to Carolina to make cap room for the signing of Derek Morris. It was difficult to predict how such a swap would affect the Bruins, who won the Eastern Conference in the ’08-09 regular season with overwhelming depth and talent, and great chemistry. As last season’s squad tread water, weighed down by injuries and a lack of production from some key players, it was obvious that Ward’s leadership was missed even as the team still featured an air-tight defense without the backliner who made the forearm shiver into a hockey move that seemingly only he could get away with.
Sure he only produced 26 points (nine goals) in a Bruins sweater. But Ward brought a dose of grit and hard work that the Bruins could not have survived without. He also had a knack for scoring at the most important times, as three of his five goals in ’07-08 were game-winners. His shorthanded goal in ’08-09 vs. Ottawa was one of a million exciting moments from that season.
Former Bruins defenseman Shane Hnidy, who dressed next to Ward at the team’s Wilmington, Mass., practice facility, used to joke that Ward’s stall had an open sign that was always on. Age and knee surgery have forced Ward to turn off that sign (at least as an active player) once and for all. While the Cup wins and the playoff runs with other teams will all be major parts of the eulogy of Ward’s career, his achievements with the Bruins and hand in helping turn the franchise from chumps to potential champs should be remembered by fans and members of the Boston organization alike.