Shortly after Taylor Ward arrived on the Omaha campus, now-former Maverick forward Ryan Galt gave him some advice. Although Ward received the advice before his freshman season even started, it especially hits home today.
“He told me the days will be long, but the years will fly by,” Ward said. “At the time, me being a naive freshman, I’m thinking, ‘these days are really long and these years are going to take forever.’ But he was right. You have to put in the work, even on the days where you might not want to, and enjoy it. Because it goes by quick.
“Some days it feels like I showed up yesterday as a freshman, but when all the memories flood back you realize it was four years, and I spent a lot of time there. I’m really thankful for my time in Omaha and I’ll miss being there, but eventually, it’s your time to go.”
This past weekend, Ward’s time in Omaha came to a close, as the senior forward inked an entry-level deal with the Los Angeles Kings. Ward’s one-year contract, which will pay him $842,500, starts next season. In the meantime, he’ll join the Kings’ AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign, for the remainder of this season on an Amateur Tryout Offer (ATO).
Regarded by many as one of the top undrafted free agents in the country, Ward started talking with the Kings organization when Omaha’s season ended. The British Columbia native said the process moved quickly and described the last week as one of the busiest and most stressful of his life.
However, it also produced some of the most exciting days he’s ever had.
“This is why we play the game, and you want to become the best player that you can be,” Ward said of his decision to turn pro. “When you’re fortunate enough to move up levels and be able to play in better leagues, I think that’s the best part of the game. I think I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous, but I’m also extremely excited and confident in what I can do here.”
As for why he chose to sign with the Kings, Ward said it boiled down to two main factors: a good fit to develop as a player and a first-class organization.
“I just really liked their mindset towards the development part of the game,” Ward said. “They had a good vision of how I’m going to become a better player, and I think that was something that was important to me. Getting here and checking out the facilities and meeting the staff and coaches, I think this is going to be a really good spot for me. I couldn’t be happier.”
Ward has already started skating in Los Angeles and is excited to hit the ground running. But making the jump to the professional level also closes the book on his time in Omaha.
After a stellar career in a Maverick sweater, Ward leaves Omaha ranked sixth in all-time goals (57) and ninth in total points (115) in program history. Ward skated in 131 games over the past four years, but his attachment to the program and city goes beyond the ice.
“Omaha for the last four years has changed my life,” Ward said. “That place will always have a place in my heart, and I’ll always feel comfortable going back and being with the people I met and the relationships I’ve made there. I just couldn’t imagine spending the last four years anywhere else.
“My teammates, coaches, teachers and classmates, and other students — it’s tough to put into words. I made a lot of friendships here that will last forever and I appreciated every second of being there.”
Ward became one of Omaha’s most consistent scorers and was a key part of last spring’s NCAA Tournament team. He was one of nine seniors honored earlier this month against North Dakota, and Ward was met with one of the loudest ovations — justifiably so.
“Yeah, I think we accomplished a lot as a group,” he said. “Especially with my class, coming in and having a not so successful freshman year, I guess you can say. But I think we turned that around over the four years that we spent together. The players that we played with our first couple years taught us a lot, and we tried to leave a mark here ourselves.
“We’re all really proud of the program though and I’m sure we’re all going to continue following (the program). I know I’ll be following the Mavericks forever and cheering them on forever. So I’m excited to see what’s in store for them next.”
This season specifically, the right-shot winger scored 19 goals and 39 points in 38 games, both of which were the most on the Omaha roster. Whatever’s next for the Omaha program, it’ll be hard to replace Ward’s production.
Ward also received national recognition as the October Hockey Commissioners Association National Player of the Month. Ward put up 19 of his 39 points over the first 10 games of the season
He was one of Omaha’s two nominations for the Hobey Baker Award and is currently one of 10 finalists for the Senior CLASS Award. The winner will be announced next month during the Frozen Four. Even after that success in college though, Ward said it’s still hard to believe he’s now a professional hockey player.
It’s been a long journey from his first steps on the ice in the suburbs of Buffalo. The son of 10-year NHL forward Dixon Ward, a lot of sacrifices have been made in the Ward family along the way too.
“It’s something really special,” Ward said. “My dad probably hasn’t slept in a couple days because he’s so excited and happy. He’s been a huge part of me getting to this point and will continue to be a huge help, but I guess it’s my turn now. I’m ready to take the next step and go as far with this thing as I can.”
Although there’s still work to be done, Ward now finds himself one step away from the NHL. As exciting as this weekend was, he’s not satisfied yet.
“Just like every other little kid who plays hockey, their ultimate dream is to play in the NHL,” he said. “I’m happy with where I’m at, but of course, the dream is to move up another level. I’m going to do everything in my power to make that happen and it’s all part of the journey.”