Behind the Mask: Cam Ward

For the last 11 years, Cam Ward has been a fixture on the ice. As the longest playing player on the Hurricanes, he was a part of the 2005-2006 Stanley Cup winning team, received the prestigious Conn Smythe Trophy, and is a big reason why the Canes still have a chance at the playoffs this year. With more than 600 career games, Ward’s career longevity in Raleigh doesn’t go unrecognized by the player.

“I’ve taken a lot of pride in being here as long as I have been,” says Cam. “All you have to do is look around the locker room and realize it’s pretty rare in this game where a player can stay with the same organization for as long as I’ve been able to.”

Ward may be one of the most recognizable players on the team; however, he and his family have kept a low profile in the community, eschewing publicity as much as possible. Ward sits in the locker room after practice still in his skates, his mask is off and though he seems a bit tired he’s ready to talk. The conversation steers away from hockey and to another subject—wine. He visibly perks up when he starts speaking about his passion for it.

“I first got interested in wine when I turned pro with the Hurricanes,” he says. “It all began with travelling during the hockey season, going out to restaurants, and seeing [retired hockey player] Ray Whitney go over the wine list and try new things. It really piqued my interest.”

Ward also started collecting. “I enjoy the hunt for the hard-to-get wines,” he says, and his wine cellar at home is now filled with bottles from favorite vineyards, most with a story to tell and, of course, a few prized vintages. Amongst his most cherished are a 2007 Harlan Estate, an etched 3-litre Continuum, and a 2007 Hundred Acre Ark. But he says he’s not the kind of collector that keeps his wines stashed away; he enjoys sharing them with friends and family.

“I think that’s what it’s all about—the conversations and memories you’re able to create while sharing wine is something that I enjoy,” he says. “I enjoy going to the wineries, having a great experience then bringing a bottle home, opening it and sharing my story.”

Perhaps this connection between wine and conversation is one reason that led Ward to take his passion for it to the next level and start his own winery, Vineyard 36. Quite appropriately one of its taglines is “passion becomes contagious when it is shared.”

Ward partnered with hockey player and former teammate Tim Gleason, who shares his passion for wine, and Jason Earnest of Tobacco Road Cellars to establish the winery in Napa Valley. Ward is very hands-on when it comes to the business, traveling to Napa several times a year to check on the winery and pursue connections. “Wine can’t sell itself, you have to go out and sell it,” he says. “We like to make our decisions as a team and we have some exciting stuff ahead in the future. We’re driving to be great. It’s the same with hockey; you don’t want to be complacent. You want to be the best.”

When asked if post hockey he sees himself at the winery crushing grapes, he chuckles: “I absolutely love the Napa Valley area. I wish it was closer.”

His wife Cody shares his enthusiasm for wine but leaves the business to him. “I definitely partake in enjoying the wine,” says Cody. “It’s fun to watch him find that joy and passion for something outside of hockey.

For the most part the couple has enjoyed their privacy but recently they decided to publicly share an incredibly personal story about their son, Nolan, who was born profoundly deaf. “We hesitated for a long time about putting it out in the pubic,” says Cody. “Even the night before it came out, Cam and I looked at each other and thought, are we doing the right thing?”

In the end, the couple decided it was important to tell their story and raise awareness about cochlear implants. They chose to recount their journey in The Player’s Tribune, giving a thorough account of the events—finding out the news just days after Nolan was born, deciding whether to pursue cochlear implants, seeing their nine and half month old undergo major surgery, and finally hearing Nolan say the words, “I love you.”

“For us, it was a way to raise awareness for hearing loss but also for people to get a more human perspective of the athlete and what Cam goes through,” says Cody. “What people don’t see as he’s skating out onto the ice… that our son is in surgery.”

While Cam also wanted to raise awareness, he saw it as an opportunity to change the way people may perceive hearing loss. “We use the analogy, it’s like glasses. You know how people wear glasses to see, cochlear implants help my son hear,” says Cam. He also says people shouldn’t be afraid of asking questions. “I think it’s more the parents than the kids. Kids ask questions and they don’t know any different, and then the parents would say, ‘I’m sorry he said something.’ You don’t have to be sorry.”

Though skeptical at first, the couple received a lot of positive feedback from sharing their story with friends and family, strangers who had been down the same road, and doctors and medical experts who had guided them through their own journey reaching out. “You hope you’re making good decisions when you put something out into the media,” says Cody, “and I think in the end we did.”

Now thanks to this modern-day miracle, Nolan spends time with his father like any other 6-year-old playing street hockey or going out on the golf course and playing nine holes. On weekends, the family, including 4-year-old Nyla, spends as much time outdoors as possible, riding bikes or scooters, playing in the pool or on the swings. And they have another outdoor adventure to look forward to this summer: “We traded our lake house back in Alberta, Canada. We’re going to move to the beach in the summer at Topsail,” says Cam. “I grew up on the lake but my kids absolutely love the beach.”

Decidedly, the couple considers North Carolina home, and Cam hopes to continue his hockey career in Raleigh. “I see the way the organization is trending; its definitely going towards the right direction with the bright future of the players. I really want to be a part of that too,” he says. “I feel like I still can be an impact and a leader in a certain way with such a young team.” And part of passing down his wisdom to his younger teammates might just include teaching them about fine wine after playing games on the road.