Ward signs up for more hard time with Aces

Doyle Woody

He kills penalties, often plays against the opponents' top line and is usually on the ice when a one-goal lead needs defending late.

In hockey, those are known as hard minutes, and defenseman Steve Ward has played plenty of them for the Alaska Aces the last two seasons.

"And it's probably going to be more this season,'' said Aces head coach Rob Murray. "He's going to be asked to do quite a bit.''

The Aces on Thursday announced Ward, 26, will be back for a third season with the ECHL club he helped win the Kelly Cup in 2011 and has aided to consecutive Brabham Cups as the top regular-season team.

Alaska also announced rookie forward Tim Hall, 22, will return -- Hall joined the team late last season after wrapping his career at Colorado College.

That gives the Aces six players, all returners, they have announced for the 2012-13 season. The others are goaltender Gerald Coleman, center Nick Mazzolini, defenseman Kane Lafranchise and winger Jordan Kremyr.

Ward qualifies as the Aces' first veteran -- 260 or more pro games -- among the four vets each ECHL team is allowed.

Ward also skated on the power play for the Aces last season, when he generated 5-20--25 totals in 62 regular-season games and finished third on the team with a plus-14 rating.

In his two seasons with the Aces, he has become known for his reliability -- the high quality of his game rarely drops off. That's in line with Ward's demeanor -- he never gets too high or too low, and always prepares himself to play.

Ward said steadiness wasn't his strength early in his career, which prompted him to make it a priority.

"One of the knocks on me was my consistency wasn't very good,'' he said. "So I've made it a point (since) to try to be professional about everything.''

Murray said that's reflected in Ward's fitness, which allows the 6-foot, 195-pounder to play hard minutes, and in the way he practices and prepares for games.

"He's living in the moment and doing the job at hand,'' Ward said. "He's a pro.''

Given the departures of captain Brian Swanson and alternate captain Wes Goldie -- both veterans retired after last season -- more leadership will be asked of Ward.

"With the turnover of those guys, we'll be looking for him to bring that to the team and I believe he can,'' Murray said.

Ward is most likely to do that through deeds than demands.

"I've never been a real vocal guy,'' Ward said. "I may have to push myself to be more vocal this season.''

While Ward will continue to receive heavy ice time, Hall will no doubt be pushing to get more minutes. He cracked the Aces' lineup shortly after he arrived last season, getting third-line duties and sometimes spotting in as the team's 10th forward -- ECHL teams generally dress only 10 forwards among their maximum 16 skaters.

Though Hall didn't score with the Aces -- he furnished two assists in eight regular-season games -- Murray was intrigued by his speed and also by his tenacity, despite his small size (5-8, 175).

Plus, Murray said, Hall will enter training camp familiar with the pro game from his time with the club last season.

"He's had the benefit of being here and getting a taste of pro hockey, and now he knows what it takes,'' Murray said.

Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

Woody on Hockey
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News