Lingering in the hall after a game with the Vancouver Canucks late last season, veteran blueliner Aaron Ward had a question for former NHLer turned TV analyst Ray Ferraro.
Had anybody overheard the query, they would have thought Ward was either ready to buy a ring or retire.
“How did you know, Ray?”
Ward is already a married man with three kids, so this wasn’t about The One; it was about being done.
“His answer for me was, ‘play as long as you possibly can because once you step away, it’s virtually guaranteed you’re not going back,’” Ward recalled. “I took that to heart, but I couldn’t come up with a reason why I had to keep playing.”
Sit down, start writing a list of why you think people who play in the NHL are privileged and by Thanksgiving you should be halfway done. That’s what makes it so hard to walk away and why guys like Ferraro get that little glint in their eye when telling a member of the fraternity to hang in as long as they can.
At a glance, it’s easy to understand why players agonize over the decision to leave the ice. Less obvious, though, is a host of factors many fans and observers never really come face-to-face with.
For 37-year-old Ward, who officially hung ’em up in late August, a few things were at play.
For one, he had a lingering knee injury repaired after the season and was told his next knee surgery would be a replacement.
But even before that, this past year reminded Ward about the cold realities of being a movable commodity in the business of pro sports. After spending the previous two-plus seasons in Boston and Carolina, cities he very much enjoyed playing in, a trade deadline deal moved Ward from the Canes to an Anaheim Ducks team that still had legitimate designs on a playoff berth. Suffice it to say, things weren’t so sunny in California. Anaheim ended up finishing 11th in the West and Ward watched from the sidelines on a couple occasions, once with a foot injury and once as a healthy scratch.
“My experience in Anaheim gave me a taste of the idea that starting anew isn’t always the best situation for a veteran player,” he said. “When we started to realize we weren’t going to make the playoffs and things just didn’t go as expected…it was kind of a tough experience. It kind of turned me off hockey a little bit.”
Still, not wanting to make any knee-jerk decisions while that bum knee was still hurting, Ward took a few months in the summer to contemplate his next move. Ultimately, the towel got tossed with a peaceful, satisfied motion.
Ward acknowledges he’s going to miss getting the competitive fix that comes with going nose-to-nose with the world’s best each night. In fact, when it was suggested leaving the game would be a bit easier for him because he has three Cup rings on the resume, he hesitated briefly and sighed: “The unfortunate part is no matter how many you win or don’t win, you still have the desire to get more.”
But now he can get more of other stuff. Ward went to see the Michigan Wolverines beat the Connecticut Huskies 30-10 in NCAA football action Saturday and said, for the first time in years, he didn’t have to put a governor on his tailgating experience.
Then there’s the matter of accountability. Ward and his wife, Kelly, have settled outside Raleigh, N.C. As the father in a young family, there’s still plenty of responsibility to go around. But the day-to-day probes – from coaches, reporters and that internal voice that sometimes asks the toughest questions of all – have been muted.
“In a weird way, it’s like a big weight taken off your shoulders,” Ward said. “I’m no longer in a circumstance where I have to answer for a performance – whether it be how I prepared for the season, what I expect in the future or what went on in the moment of that game – I don’t have to come up with a reason or an excuse. I feel like that facet of my life is gone.”
Ward already has some experience as a TV analyst and plans to continue in that line of work on a freelance basis with Versus and TSN.
Right now, a retired guy can still feel like he’s just going through another off-season. But the reality this winter will be different is about to find Ward and he knows exactly when it will strike.
“It will really hit when the day comes that I don’t have to take that conditioning test,” he said. “I’m not standing there with my shorts and T-shirt on while people poke and prod me and stick all kinds of medical instruments every which way.”
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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