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Bemidji State’s Cory Ward (13) controls the puck in front of the Beaver bench as Miami’s Austin Wideman waits for him to make a move during a game last weekend. Ward, a sophomore from Las Vegas, leads BSU with nine goals this season. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Cory Ward staying hot: As BSU’s leading goal-scorer, Las Vegas native hasn’t cooled down this winter

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BEMIDJI — As temperatures have dipped and snow has started to accumulate in Northern Minnesota, Cory Ward remains hot.

The sophomore center leads BSU with nine goals on the season. He’s got at least a point in five of the Beavers’ past six games — including the game-winner in overtime Nov. 23 against Lake Superior State.

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Ward, a Las Vegas native, would prefer to stay warm this winter — literally and figuratively.

“I guess you could say I’m used to it, maybe,” Ward said Tuesday, following the first significant snowfall of the Bemidji winter. “I mean, I don’t know if I’ll ever be used to it. I don’t know people used to negative 20. If I could choose, I could choose 70-degree weather every day.”

Luckily for the Beavers, Ward is choosing to endure the harsh winters to be an offensive catalyst for Northern Minnesota’s college hockey team.

Ward has helped lead the Beavers to a much improved 5-8-3 record so far and has made them one of the top-scoring teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

“He’s getting it done for us right now, and I’m happy for him,” BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. “He’s our top offensive threat and he’s been the catalyst for us this first half so far.”

Vegas trained him well

One might not expect Las Vegas to be a hotbed of hockey activity: The Sin City had just two ice rinks in city limits when Ward was growing up.

But the city has a special connection with hockey — one that includes Ward’s favorite team. The NHL played its very first outdoor game Sept. 27, 1991, between the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers. The game was played on the roof of the Caesar’s Palace Casino.

Ward, born in 1993, didn’t attend the game but his dad — a die-hard Rangers fan — did.

It was his dad’s devotion to the Blueshirts that sparked Ward’s interest in hockey.

“My dad’s from New York, so he’s a die-hard New York fan in every sport. Especially the Rangers,” Ward said.

“I think he was just watching a Ranger game one day and I was really little and wanted to do it, too. So he started taking me to the rink and I just started loving it.”

It’s not necessarily easy playing hockey in Las Vegas — according to USA Hockey, there were 1,144 registered players in Nevada in 2011-12. But considering there were just 258 players in 1990-91, the sport is growing in the desert.

“Every year, there’s more and more hockey players,” Ward said. “Probably because of the Kings and the Ducks and even the Sharks. West Coast hockey is growing and more and more people are getting drafted from there.”

That includes Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker, who was born in California and raised in Las Vegas. There are four players from Nevada on NCAA hockey rosters, according to College Hockey Inc.

Still, the relative lack of competition in the immediate Las Vegas area meant Ward was always traveling. He said it helped get him ready for future travels in junior hockey.

“I had a great learning experience,” he said. “We never played tournaments (in Vegas), we always traveled. So I’ve been to probably every state, just because we traveled for hockey all the time and we got to experience that. It was probably the best time of my life, being able to travel around with the team and your parents and your families.”

Sparking team’s success

In general, the Beavers have already proved to be a better offensive team than they were at this point last season, when they scored just 38 goals in the first half.

But thanks in part to the go-to presence of Ward, BSU has already netted 48 goals. Fellow sophomore Markus Gerbrandt is right behind Ward with eight goals. In all, 19 players have scored at least a goal for BSU.

Serratore said Ward helps create opportunities for other players, simply because opponents have to spend so much time guarding him.

“He’s a tough guy to handle one-on-one,” Serratore said. “You typically need two guys on him.

“He’s been our most dangerous forward game in and game out. He shoots like a pro and he has the ability of scoring on consistent basis outside the top of the circles — not a lot of players can do that, but Cory can. And he’s probably our strongest player.”

Teammate Radoslav Illo likes having the go-to goalscorer in Ward.

“Wardo is a great guy, and great player for us,” Illo said. “He has a real good shot and he can put the puck in the net. It’s good to see him keep scoring goals. It’s always nice to have these kinds of guys on the team who you know can score goals.”

Ward is glad to keep scoring, but he’s also impressed how well the whole team has come together after a rough 2012-13 season — especially incoming freshmen and his own sophomore class.

“I think you have to give a lot of credit to our freshman,” Ward said. “They’re playing extremely well. They knew we had so many they were going to have to take roles and every single one of them has taken that full steam.

“I think lots of guys that are used to playing together... even my (sophomore) class has emerged. Markus is having a great year, James (Hansen, defenseman) is playing very well. Graeme (McCormack, defenseman) and Rob (Brad Robbins, forward) are also playing well. I think it’s just a really good recipe we have now.”

The Beavers travel to Michigan Tech this weekend currently in second place in the WCHA. They have just two more weekends before Christmas break — their first break all season — and they’d prefer to finish with four wins.

“We want some points the next few weekends,” Ward said. “We want to go into the break still in second. Last year, we didn’t have a season like this so it feels good to be able to be one of the top teams in the conference and still be in the mix in the second half.”

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at http://thebeaverblog.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.
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