Let's get this out of the way right off the top.
Carolina defenseman Aaron Ward sees no purpose in Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton or anyone in a black-and-gold sweater exacting any type of revenge on Hurricanes tough guy Scott Walker Saturday night at TD Garden during the first meeting between the teams that staged a classic seven-game conference semifinal series last season. Walker flattened Ward, then a Bruin, with what many Bruins felt was a "sucker punch" in Game 5 of the conference semifinals last season.
Ward and Walker became teammates when the Bruins dealt the veteran to the Canes on July 24.
"It's irrelevant at this point. So much has changed in terms of the makeup [of the teams]," Ward told ESPNBoston.com by phone earlier this week. "If you're deciding to make a statement by sticking up for a teammate, I'm not a teammate anymore. I think both teams have taken on a new face. So I think it would be a waste of time to do anything about it. And to be perfectly honest, it would serve no purpose.
"There is nothing for him to do. For him [Thornton], I respected him as a teammate. He's got a lot of skill. He should just go out and play the game and let it happen, let the game come to him -- not think about it."
Much to the disgust of Ward and his Boston teammates, Walker was let off with only a fine following the Game 5 incident last spring. Walker went on to score the overtime game-winner in Game 7, and then -- ironically -- Ward was traded to Carolina two months later. Ward and Walker buried the hatchet long ago. They even sat down for a TSN interview together earlier this week.
"We joked that we had to draw straws to see who would sit in the other's lap," Ward said.
Beyond the Walker sideshow, it should be an emotional return -- both for the former Bruins blueliner and the Boston fans -- Saturday night. During his 2½ years with the Bruins, Ward endeared himself to Boston fans with his gritty play and determination on the ice and his charisma with the media, including his frequent television and radio appearances. Ward personified the resurrection of old-school, hard-working Bruins hockey as much as anyone. But in an effort to upgrade the offensive dynamic of his back end, general manager Peter Chiarelli wanted to import Derek Morris. In order to add Morris, someone had to be traded to clear cap space, and Ward was dealt to Carolina, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2006 and still makes his offseason home.
"It's a little weird. As much as it's the same group of core guys, you don't want to step into the locker room and become vocal. There's a balance, so it's a process," Ward said about fitting back in with the Canes.
Ward isn't the only 2008-09 Bruin now skating in a Canes sweater. Stephane Yelle joined Carolina in August as an unrestricted free agent when he signed a one-year, $550,000 deal. As in Boston and every other place he's played, Yelle is killing penalties and playing a vital role on Carolina's lower lines.
"He's doing great. He's fitting in on the team real well," Ward said. "You play with that guy and until you start seeing him in games, you really don't know what intangibles he brings to the table. He has a natural inclination to block a puck with his face. He has total disregard for his own safety. He's a bargain. He's one of these guys that I shake my head that in the economics of the game, he had to take a pay cut. His experience, what he brings to the table, you start to wonder how he got in the position that he did.
"When it came time to sign him, I was the first guy to grab a soapbox and jump on it and laud the benefits of having Stephane Yelle as a teammate."
We won't know until Saturday night what type of reception Ward will receive when he takes the Garden ice in enemy garb. Nor do we know how he'll react, although days before the game he was certain he'd be able to keep it together and approach it as just another game in his 17-year pro career. But anything could happen.
"The other funny thing is you're there and you're very familiar, you're fresh off that team and all of the experiences were great and you went through a lot with that team," Ward said. "So it'll be interesting. I'm sure I'll learn a little bit about myself and how I felt about that experience."