From: Ryan Stanzel
Director of Communications
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
713.361.7930 (Direct Line)
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WILD ABOUT WARDO; WINGER SIGNS NHL CONTRACT
He was the Aeros’ 15th leading scorer last season as a rookie, missed a month with a sprained knee, but winger Joel Ward stands the best chance of any of his teammates of beginning the 2006-07 season with the Minnesota Wild.
The 25-year-old Ward signed a contract with the Wild for the upcoming season today – a long shot when you consider he wasn’t even in Aeros camp a year ago.
“I’m just up here trying to prove myself and get a chance,” said Ward, who got the call from the Aeros last fall in his first day of camp with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades. “It’s been quite the battle and a lot of work.”
Ward, who began with the Aeros last season on a tryout, attended Minnesota’s camp four seasons ago and was offered a minor league contract. Instead, he decided to finish his schooling at the University of Prince Edward Island.
He came to the Aeros and helped anchor the team’s “checking” line along with Bryan Lundbohm and Josh Olson. The trio combined to frustrate the best of AHL scorers, while chipping in offense as well. Aeros head coach Rob Daum often started the game with that line because he knew they wouldn’t allow an early goal.
Ward is for sure not your typical National Hockey League rookie, but that hasn’t stopped him, said Daum, who himself coached Canadian college hockey for 10 years.
“I’ve always said that if a guy can play at 25 or 26, in my opinion it’s better than a guy who can’t play at 22 and isn’t considered a prospect,” Daum said. “The philosophy is if you have someone who can play and help the team, it’s the way you want to go. The perfect example of it is Joel, and the way things are going for him. He’s an older guy, a product of the Canadian system. He’s a good player who found his role with us last year, and he’s parlaying that into a legitimate shot at the NHL because the Wild need someone like him.”
Ward dropped 10 pounds over the summer and is one of perhaps three players battling for – maybe – one roster spot on the Wild. While watching Minnesota’s top prospects get sent to Houston, Ward has battled his way.
“He’s earned an NHL contract,” Aeros general manager Tom Lynn said. “He’s in great shape, and came in ready to compete. Here’s a guy last year that was on an AHL tryout, and now he’s one of the final three players left before final cuts. It’s proof of opportunity for anybody.”
“I’m basically just trying to do what I do, work hard every day, come prepared to battle in practices and games,” Ward said. “Make my way into the lineup and work hard both on and off the ice. So far it seems to be going alright.”
Ward certainly gives hope to other Canadian college players. The Aeros have three in training camp – Chris Ovington and Ben Thomson, who played for Daum at the University of Alberta, and last season’s CIS Player of the Year Kevin Baker. Ward won that award in 2004-05.
“It’s a great league with a lot of good players, and you just get overlooked sometimes,” Ward said. “There are quite a few players in that league that can play hockey at that level. But after we graduate we still have the mentality to play at that high level. It’s always been my dream to play in the NHL, and it’s getting closer. I’ve just got to keep working hard and keep plugging away.”
That mentality isn’t lost on management, either.
“The interesting thing about Canadian college guys is they are more emotionally and physically mature,” Lynn said. “Unlike junior guys and U.S. college guys who come out when they are 20, they are much more mature and ready to compete even as professional rookies.”
“Thomson, Ovington and Baker have the skills, the potential to make our team better where we aren’t as deep,” Daum added. “That’s why they’re here. They’ll show well in this camp.” ---HOUSTON AEROS