Rookie Ward is thrilled to play in his hometown

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 26, 2006 - 10:24 PM

TORONTO - Wide-eyed and jittery, Wild forward Joel Ward wasn't sure if he was more nervous before Tuesday's game against the Maple Leafs or in his NHL debut five games ago against Vancouver.

"This is quite the evening," the 26-year-old Toronto native said prior to earning his first NHL point with an assist of Kurtis Foster's goal less than three minutes into the game, a 4-3 Maple Leafs victory. "It's the best Christmas gift anyone could ask for, to play in a building like this and to play against a team I've adored and admired. It's just an unbelievable thrill."

In front of his mother, two older brothers, girlfriend and scores of other friends and family members, Ward played right wing alongside Derek Boogaard and Wyatt Smith against the team he has watched his entire life.

And when you're a lifelong Leafs fan, you're also a lifelong, suffering Leafs fan. Toronto hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1967.

"Going back to '93, I thought that was our year," said. "With Dougie Gilmour, it was an unbelievable run. Uhhh! The game against the Kings was unfortunate. Gilmour got high-sticked by [Wayne] Gretzky. No call. I still have a couple rough nights sleep over that one."

To this day, referee Kerry Fraser still gets booed in Toronto over that missed call in Game 6 of the Campbell Conference finals. The Kings beat the Maple Leafs in overtime, then came back to Toronto, where Gretzky had a hat trick to eliminate Toronto in Game 7. Los Angeles wound up losing to Montreal in the Stanley Cup Finals.

"I kind of feel what Red Sox fans were going through [for 86 years] before they won [in 2004]," Ward said. "Watching the Leafs, you hope they win every year. Like any other fan, I love the city of Toronto. It's my home. I cheer for the Leafs all the time on TV. Just to step on the ice ... but I hope we get the two points."

Ward also was playing with a heavy heart. His father -- Randall, who immigrated from Barbados -- died in 1994, and Ward put the initials R.W. on his stick.

"He was the believer that knew that I would make it," said Ward, a University of Prince Edward Island graduate who earned an NHL contract after coming to Wild training camp on a tryout. "Of all the doubters, my dad wasn't one of them.

"He was always telling me, always telling his friends that I would make it to the NHL. I always laughed, but he was serious. I know he's watching. I know he's really proud. I'm excited to put on a decent show for him."

Etc.

• Defenseman Petteri Nummelin (lower back, hip) remained in Minnesota and won't play tonight in Detroit. The Wild lost center Mikko Koivu in the final minute of Tuesday's game, but assistant GM Tom Lynn said Koivu is "fine" for tonight.

• Tuesday was also the first NHL game in Toronto for Ajax, Ontario, native Brent Burns and the Ottawa-born Foster, who played junior hockey in nearby Peterborough. The Wild last played at Toronto in April 2003.

• Wild forward Derek Boogaard was given a 10-minute misconduct in the second period for warming up during a TV timeout. Earlier in the week, Boogaard was told by the NHL that he was not permitted to warm up during stoppages, but he did so anyway in the building that is attached to the league's Toronto headquarters.

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