Aaron Ward joined the New York Rangers last summer looking for a chance to win his fourth Stanley Cup ring – with an unprecedented third different team.
The 34-year-old defenseman played for the 2006 champion Carolina Hurricanes and also won titles with the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he started his career.
While winning is his main goal, playing in New York brought side benefits, because Ward is an avid memorabilia collector.
“There’s a wealth of opportunity there to get stuff,” Ward said of New York. “You know, obviously, with Jeter and A-Rod. My passion actually is baseball, so I’ve got Mickey Mantle-signed bats, a Joe DiMaggio signed bat, a Ted Williams signed bat.
“I’ve got a bat from McGwire the year he hit 70 home runs,” he continued. “A bat, ball and practice jersey.”
Sharing the same practice facility with the New York Knicks gives Ward a chance to collect things from NBA stars, as well. But his favorite item is football-related.
“My prize possession is my Joe Namath signed jersey that’s on my wall. I have an extensive collection of collectibles,” he said. “I collect tons.”
Now Ward finds himself in new surroundings, on the Boston Bruins, which obtained him on Feb. 27 in a trade that sent defenseman Paul Mara to New York. So this spring, it wouldn’t be surprising to find Ward at Fenway Park, trying to hawk autographs from a Red Sox player or two.
However, Ward is careful about the way he approaches fellow sports stars, not wanting to intrude on their private lives. It’s a policy any collector should follow.
“I know how it is sometimes, trying to give stuff to other people, so I just try to do it discreetly,” he said.
Of course, Ward has plenty of hardware from his own career.
“I’ve saved every single jersey from every year,” he said. “Every year that we’ve won, I’ve got team-signed jerseys.”
A 1993 first-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets, Ward made his NHL debut with Detroit, following a three-year stint with the organization’s AHL Adirondack franchise in Glens Falls, N.Y. That’s where the 20-year-old prospect began honing his skills both on and off the ice in preparation for a solid career at hockey’s highest level.
Last fall, the Rangers spent a three-day mini-camp back in the Adirondack region at beautiful Lake George, where players engaged in team-building exercises just prior to the season’s start. For Ward, it gave him a chance to reflect about his hockey roots and all that he’d still like to accomplish.
“I grew up a lot in this city,” he said. “This place holds great memories. Not only for the beginning of my pro career, but the experiences as a 20-year-old that you can take away from living in an environment like this.
“The community really shapes who the people are that leave it,” he continued. “They were very forgiving of young men who learned their lessons over time about what it is to play hockey, on and off the ice. It was a great place to mature. Coming back to this area, reliving my youth, it does kind of revitalize you a little bit.”
After helping the Hurricanes win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history last year, Ward became a free agent, and after careful consideration, signed a two-year deal with the Rangers. Why?
“An opportunity to win,” he said, matter-of-factly. “You don’t want to go through the end stage of your career struggling. You want to be with a team that has an opportunity to win, and as I looked at it last summer, I thought this team had a great opportunity.
“You look at the maturity of a team, the makeup of a team, the makeup of the coaching staff, management, the type of amenities that are presented for your family.”
In addition to Ward, the Rangers signed All-Star forward Brendan Shanahan last summer, giving tremendous depth to an offense led by superstar Jaromir Jagr.
But the 2006-07 campaign was wrought with ups and downs for the Rangers, which still found themselves struggling for a playoff spot heading into March. At the NHL trading deadline, the Rangers exchanged Ward’s leadership and experience for the 6-foot-4 Mara’s size and physicality. His 95 penalty minutes were second on the Bruins before going to New York. Mara is also seven years younger than Ward, who was in the first season of a two-year contract, paying him $2.75 million per year.
Like Ward, Rangers coach Tom Renney is an avid memorabilia collector in his own right, although most of his efforts are geared toward helping charitable causes.
“Most of what I’ve got is things from Team Canada, the Olympics and World Championships,” he said. “Beyond that, anything I secure I end up giving away to charities. It seems like that’s my job in the offseason, to procure memorabilia so that I can donate to charities. I’m not able to keep a lot of stuff, but as long as we’re able to help people raise money for good causes, I’m OK with that. I certainly have no trouble trying to procure things so that people can generate cash for their causes.”
However, Renney has managed to save a few things for himself, items that bring back favorite memories from a long and successful career.
“Believe it or not, I’ve got a Paul Kariya jersey from the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer,” he said. As head coach, he guided Team Canada to a silver medal finish.
“That one’s big for me, naturally, and I’ve got two sweaters, one from the 1994 World Championships where we won a gold medal. And I have Billy Ranford’s jersey from there, as well,” he said.
Shanahan, who’s destined for Hockey’s Hall of Fame, has collected some items from his career, such as sticks that produced milestones goals. Like Ward, however, his main objective is adding another ring to his memorabilia collection. He’s already got three Stanley Cups to his credit and would like a fourth.
His veteran leadership is one of the main attributes the Rangers were looking for, along with his proven ability at winning. The 38-year-old left winger was one of the most important players on Detroit’s championship clubs, so he knows what it takes to enjoy hockey’s ultimate triumph.
“It all comes down to chemistry,” he said. “It doesn’t matter about pedigree or statistics. It comes down to do you gel and do you have chemistry.”
Of course, the Bruins have the exact same need, which explains why they got Ward, whose invaluable playoff experience should make a huge difference in Boston’s own playoff hopes. He knows what it takes to be a champion, and he knows that it takes an entire team.
“It’s never about one guy,” he said. “It’s a never-ending process, trying to get those components in place. Hopefully we’ve got the right mixture. It looks like it. We’ve got a great group of guys.”