Hockey’s Future Interview with Lance Ward

By Mark Fischel
Hockey’s Future recently had the opportunity to speak with Lance Ward, who played 30 games as a rookie defenseman for the Florida Panthers last season. Ward was given his opportunity to play against Carolina last year, and he quickly found himself playing on the top defensive unit with veteran Robert Svehla. But just as it appeared that unit was going to be together the rest of the year, Lance came down with an unfortunate back injury which ended his season.

Ready to put all that behind him, Hockey’s Future caught up with Lance Ward while he was attending a Panthers strength camp in preparation for a training camp in Thunder Bay next month. Lance was able to reflect on his past season, the perils of re-entering the draft, his upcoming season, and the Panthers entertaining radio announcer, Randy Moller.

HF: At what point in your life did you realize that you would be able to have aspirations to play hockey on the professional level?

LW: As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved playing hockey and that’s why I still play. It’s turned into a job now, but it’s something that I love and I would be doing it even if I weren’t a professional.

HF: Was there any player that you emulated growing up?

LW: No, not really. I grew up watching the Edmonton Oilers and watched guys like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and they were the kind of guys that I was a fan of when I was young.

HF: To this point, what has been your most cherished memory as a Hockey player, be it on the NHL level, Minor or Junior level?

LW: It might be my first game or my first shift. Those are the kind of memories that I can remember clear as day and it is something that brings a smile to my face.

HF: When you were on the bench for that first game against Carolina, what was going through your head the first time you got called to jump on the ice?

LW: I don’t know. You know what? Not much. (laughing) Just planned on going out there and hitting somebody.

HF: What are your thoughts on Duane Sutter saying he wants to hire a full time defensive coach to improve the defense, which in his words hasn’t seen a substantial improvement since Lindy Ruff left?

LW: Well, I think it’s a great opportunity for myself and all the other young defensemen in the organization. I’m not sure who he is going to bring in, but any time you can get advice from an ex-NHLer and he can coach you, you hopefully improve a lot and it’ll make me a better player.

HF: During the last pre-season, you were placed at the wing position for several games. Have you ever played wing before?

LW: Yes, two years ago I played maybe five or seven games on Wing.

HF: How did you find that experience and did it help you get a better understanding of defense?

LW: I think it makes you appreciate how hard forwards actually work when they’re fore-checking and back-checking and it makes you more aware in the defensive zone. Playing both positions I can kind of understand what a winger’s job is and how to play my man differently down in the defensive zone.

HF: Robert Svehla called you “Terry Carkner with speed” and the comparison seemed to fit. What is your assessment of the way you two play together, and how has he helped you adjust to the NHL game?

LW: He was a huge help for me. I was with him from almost day one and if I messed up, he was always back covering me. If I made a good play, he would give me praise; give me a pat on the back or whatever.

I think Robert is one of the best defensemen in the League. Any time you get a chance to play with somebody who is that good of a player, it’s going to make myself look better; it’s going to give me confidence to go out there and play the way I can.

HF: After your junior days, you went to the minors and had to play on three different teams in one year, was all that travel and upheaval difficult for you?

LW: Yes. I had a bit of a tough time, I guess. My first year pro I was all over the place. It’s tough to find ice anywhere we played, too. (laughs) I believe that it just made me stronger dealing with a little adversity my first year pro and I went into the next summer thinking I didn’t want to do that again the next season.

So, I worked out hard; I had goals and came to camp in the best shape of my life. I think Florida noticed that and I had a really good season in Louisville. From that summer on, I’ve just been improving.

HF: With the Panther roster almost surely to be seeing some changes, what do you think you will have to do to ensure one of those defense spots is yours to start to season?

LW: I just have to play the way I’ve played when I was up here at the end of the season. If I just play physical; keep it simple; bang some bodies out there, hopefully play well defensively and not let anybody score when I’m on the ice, I think that’s my job and I hope if I do that I’ll be playing regularly.

HF: Do you feel this spot is yours to lose?

LW: Not necessarily. There are some great players in the organization. Every year they draft a couple more kids that want somebody’s job. I’m going to come into this Camp the same way I’ve come the last two years. I’ve got to earn a spot on the team; there’s no guarantee, especially for me. I think I might have a little advantage having played 30 games last year, but I’ve got to come in good shape and I’ve got to play well in order to stay.

HF: What kind of role do you ultimately see yourself filling with the Panthers over the long haul?

LW: Probably on defense (laughing) I can narrow it down to; I feel more comfortable on defense. Playing just a solid game, I think I can move the puck and bang some bodies and play defense real well. I’m usually paired with an offensive player and I’m the stay-at-home guy. Hopefully, that’s what I can do here.

HF: Who has been the most difficult player to play against last year, and what team gave you the most trouble as a defensive unit?

LW: Probably, that would be Jaromir Jagr. Kind of the obvious answers, but he really is hard to check; very strong and skilled. Good playmaker to, so it’s hard to know what to do.

HF: Besides the strength camp, what have you been doing over the off-season?

LW: Up to this point, not much. I had surgery at the end of the season, so I’m just recovering from that. Getting back into the working out bit.

HF: Seeing that the Devils won the Cup last year and went to the Finals this year, do you have any regrets about not coming to terms with the Devils when they drafted you in 96?

LW: It was a whole bunch of things. At the time I didn’t feel that that was a place that I wanted to play for ten years or however long my career was going to be. Just a decision that I decided not to sign with them and it turned out for the best right now.

I’ve got no regrets. I’m very happy w/the way things have turned out. I believe that the way things are going are the way things are meant to be and I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my hockey career. Even the mistakes that I’ve done, I’ve learned from them and I’m a better person for it…definitely don’t regret it.

HF: In 96, when you heard your name get called at the 10 spot, what were you thinking? Did you know NJ was interested in you?

LW: I knew NJ was interested, but I wasn’t ready for being selected that high. It was a surprise…a pleasant surprise. That made the draft very enjoyable for myself; I didn’t have to sit there for very long. Wasn’t expecting to go then; I was hoping to go in the first round and I was planning on going, I thought, around the end the first round. It’s a lot easier on the mind when you go before you’re expected to go!

HF: How about when you re-entered the draft, was there any worries about where you would end up, and did you know the Panthers were looking at you?

LW: I had a few interviews with the Panther scouts, at the time Bryan Murray and Chuck Fletcher, and I knew they were interested. I figured I would go in the second or third round. That’s what happened. It was harder the second time; there’s a lot more uncertainty going in. I knew my Junior days were over and it was going to be the team that I would sign with. I was a lot more nervous the second time (laughing).

HF: Have you had an opportunity to think about your goals for the next season, personal and team-wise?

LW: Personally it’s kind of tough. I’m a defensive player, so plus/minus is a big stat for me. I’ve always prided myself on trying to be a plus-player, so that’s a big stat. As for the Goals Against, if I’m playing well and a lot, those kinds of things start chipping away. Those are things that I try not to focus on.

HF: Playing for the Red Deer Rebels in Juniors for 4 years, were there lots of “Red Deer” Randy Moller sightings?

LW: Yes!

HF: Catch any on videotape?

LW: (laughing) No! Actually, his brother coached me for a year! His brother, Mike. Honestly, I didn’t know Randy when I was in Red Deer, but I knew Mike pretty well.

HF: Lance, thank you for your time!

LW:My pleasure!

As always, any questions, comments, or ideas are appreciated!

On a personal note, I must extend my utter gratitude to my fiancee, who patiently and without question transcribes these interviews. Without her, the turn-around time on interviews would be about 3 months, and I would be a mess if she wasn’t in my life…..

Mark Fischel

Panthers Editor