A former defenseman at Michigan (1991-93) and 15-year NHL veteran before retiring in 2010, Aaron Ward, in conjunction with U-M, will honor and recognize a member of the United States military at all 18 home hockey games this season.
The program, designated "Wards Warriors," has root in the former Wolverine's experienced in Ann Arbor.
"When I arrived at Michigan, one of the things they taught us was to be involved in the community," Ward told TheWolverine.com today. "Our sojourns to Mott Hospital stuck with me. I wondered at first why it was a big deal for these sick kids because it wasn't like we were celebrities or sports stars playing pro hockey, but then you went, and you realized it was just about the interaction, giving them someone to talk to, laugh and smile with.
"As much as I've heard people mock the idea of being a 'Michigan Man' there is an incredible culture there of teaching you to be a good person, and realizing there is more to life than playing your sport. Red Berenson taught me that. The athletic department taught me that and I've tried to carry that with me throughout the rest of my life."
Living in North Carolina after spending five seasons with the Hurricanes (2002-04, 2006, 2010), Ward is just 45 minutes from Fort Bragg and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and the experience he had working with veterans while playing for Carolina continues to motivate him today.
"It's a respect issue," he said. "I believe the two most undervalued occupations in our country are teachers and the military. Neither get paid what they deserve or seem to receive the respect they've earned.
"One shapes the lives of our future and our youth, and the other performs a duty that I myself do not think I would have the intestinal fortitude to perform. And as a Canadian now American citizen, I am so appreciative for my freedom that these men and women dedicate their lives to protect.
"Personally, when I was traded to Carolina, there are military installations all around you and the Hurricanes did so many events, and I wanted to be a part of honoring our military. When I went to Boston, I bought tickets so that 300 service members could come to a game, and then when I returned to Carolina, there was a partnership with Volvo where we bought a suite for military members to attend.
"I can honestly say that the moment they stopped the game to recognize the servicemen and women there gave me an added boost down on the ice. I would look up and they inspired me."
Military members can fill out a corresponding form on MGoBlue.com to nominate themselves or someone in their family. During each of the 18, an entry will be selected, with each person receiving six tickets that Ward will be donating. The serviceman or woman will sit in a Yost Ice Arena Champions Box and will be recognized on the video board.
"It could be military family whose mother or father is serving and they just need a night to take their mind off everything, or it could be an active military veteran on leave," he said. "I live in North Carolina so most of the game-by-game they'll have to run, but I'm going to make it up to Ann Arbor, because I really want to be there sometime to see them honored."
Berenson proudly talks about the former players from his program that have gone on to make an impact in their careers, as husbands, fathers, and in their communities. Ward is one of those guys, and he hopes the current Wolverines will one day follow his lead.
"I don't have contact with the current players but I know when I went to school, I was aware of our history and always wanted to know what the guys that came before me were doing," he said.
"This is my 20th year since I left Michigan and I've always been really involved - I've been a Victor's Club member, donated money to the Academic Center, have football tickets - but I had yet to have done something with the hockey program, and if I can inspire someone that makes it to the NHL and decides he wants to do something charitable on his own volition … I hope the guys there take a second to realize they mean a lot more to their community than just being a hockey player."