By Charles Dart | AHL On The Beat Archive
The undeniable allure of Las Vegas for many individuals is within the city’s luxury and extravagancy that entices many into the wagering casino, all-hours-party lifestyle.
But for St. John’s IceCaps forward Cory Ward, Las Vegas is his hometown; a place with a tight knit hockey community that desires to be a hockey city with local players such as himself playing in the big leagues.
“It’s a very, very small community, but it’s a good community to be around,” Ward said of his hometown.
“There was no junior team there growing up. There’s no NHL team. There was an ECHL team, but there isn’t any more. Hockey was just a very fun thing to do. You hoped to play in a good junior league; you didn’t think about being able to play collegiate hockey or anything like that.”
With aspirations greater than the MGM Grand, the 22 year-old Ward surpassed the collegiate hockey fantasy and has gone one step further: playing professional hockey in the American Hockey League.
After four years of NCAA hockey with the Bemidji State University Beavers in the hockey state of Minnesota, Ward inked an amateur tryout contract (ATO) with the IceCaps on March 18th.
The senior Beaver found himself to be in a peculiar situation, but optimistic about where it could lead.
“It’s mixed emotions, because it feels really good to get the opportunity. But it’s still just about trying to prove myself,” Ward said. “I don’t really have time to feel really, really good about it because I’m just trying to fit in, get in the lineup, and make the team. This is where I wanted to be, and I’m just trying to make the best impression in person that I can.”
Fitting in on new clubs and transitioning from league to league has been smoother than most for Ward.
From his days in the North American Hockey Prospects League U16 (NAPHL), where he placed second in league scoring, up to the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and onwards onto collegiate hockey, Ward was able to settle in relatively well.
“Going from the NAHL to collegiate hockey, I feel I was ready because each level before personally challenged me to get me ready for the next level,” said Ward.
As a rookie during the 2011-2012 NAHL campaign, Ward recorded 57 points (32G, 25A) in 58 games with the Aberdeen Wings. He followed up with a 35-goal, 63-point campaign the next season as team captain, catching the attention of Bemidji State University head coach Tom Serratore in the process.
“The thing about Cory Ward, and that’s what we liked about him when we recruited him, is that he shoots like a pro,” Serratorre said. “When he was 18 years old he had an unbelievable release. He’s the guy that has the ability of scoring from outside the top of the circles, from anywhere in the offensive zone.”
Ward compiled 45 goals and 35 assists in 151 games with the Beavers over four seasons, but for Serratore, offence was just one component of Ward’s game.
“He’s accountable in his own zone, defensively. And he’s good in the neutral zone whether it’s away from the puck or at the puck. And in the offensive zone, not only can he shoot the puck, but he makes plays,” said Serratore, who is now in his 14th season as head coach of the men’s Beavers team and 23rd season as a collegiate hockey coach. “He tends to his business and works extremely hard, on and off the ice. Over the course of the four years, he was a guy I could personally trust and he played a lot of minutes for me.”
“They definitely did a great job with me in shaping my game and doing everything they could to get me ready for this level,” said Ward of his University coaching staff. “It’s where I really learned the game. Before I was just playing off instinct with a little bit of teaching and coaching here and there, but that’s where I really learned the defensive part of the game and how to play the right way.”
Serratore added, “I think he’s a kid who’s got quiet confidence in his game, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in Cory as a player. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s playing in the American Hockey League. I’m really happy for him right now.”
Ward made his AHL debut on March 20th, and not only was it a special occasion for him, but also for the hockey community in Las Vegas.
Ward is just the third Las Vegas-born player to skate in an AHL game. Only Eddie DelGrosso (09-10 Springfield Falcons) and Chris Francis (10-11 Springfield Falcons) have done so before him.
And on the latest hot topic of Las Vegas hockey, Ward said he is thrilled about the possibility of an NHL expansion franchise in his hometown.
“From the youth aspect it would be really good for Las Vegas,” Ward said. “I had great coaches growing up because it was a good spot for ex-NHLers to go coach and I am thankful for that, and I know with the Kings winning the Stanley Cup recently and the Ducks doing well it has definitely helped the hockey community on the West Coast. It would definitely help boost the hockey players in Las Vegas.”