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Dillon Ward Has Worked His Way into The All-Time Ranks

Don’t let the name fool you. The town of Orangeville, Ontario, which is situated on the outskirts of the Greater Toronto Area, is not a mass producer of oranges.

However, Orangeville is known for breeding incredible lacrosse talents, including notables such as Brodie and Patrick Merrill and Phil and Josh Sanderson. It is also a town that has produced some of the best (and winningest) goaltending talents the league has ever seen, including Evan Kirk, Brandon Miller, Nick Rose and Dillon Ward – the entire list of NLL products that have come from there is too long to post here.

Growing up in this town of about 30,000 people, lacrosse is bound to become a significant part of your life, and that’s what happened with Ward. His life revolved around lacrosse, and from a young age, he focused all of his energy on trying to become the best goaltender he could be. Even once he made it to the NLL, he didn’t waste any opportunities that could have helped him achieve lacrosse greatness.

“When I was younger, I was a total lax-rat, not to say that I’m not a lax-rat still,” Ward said. “I was watching every single game, every single weekend and watching every single goalie. I saw what was working for them and tried to implement that into my game.

“A couple of the guys that I watched very closely were Brandon Miller, an Orangeville boy who I grew up idolizing, Anthony Cosmo, Matt Vinc… Mike Poulin, as well. There were a lot of goalies when I was younger that I was able to have of access to, and could pick their brains. There’s definitely a lot of older guys that helped me come into my own.”

Usually, when you’re a budding young goaltender in the NLL, you’ll be the second or third option to start between the pipes. There’s often at least one veteran netminding force who’s starting games while you sit on the bench trying to soak up as much information as possible. A new goaltender to the league will use the tutelage of a savvy vet to groom them.

But this wasn’t the case with Ward. He was the third overall pick in the 2013 NLL Entry Draft; the first goaltender to go in the top three since Gee Nash was chosen second overall by the New York Saints. Ward was selected by the Colorado Mammoth and was immediately inserted in the #1 goaltending spot ahead of Tye Belanger.

“I kind of got thrown into the deep end right off the rip,” Ward said. “I remember my very first start against Edmonton did not go very well – it was a back-to-back on the road with Calgary the night before. I don’t remember if I made it to the third quarter or if I didn’t even make it out of the second quarter. That was a tough one. It was my ‘Welcome to the NLL’ moment.’”

Ward had played in a few games before that start versus the Edmonton Rush in 2014 – he even notched his first win before his starting debut – but that night against Edmonton was definitely one to learn from and then quickly move on. Ward surrendered eight goals in 25 minutes (so he didn’t make it to halftime) and was promptly replaced by Belanger. Ward had a Goals Against Average of 19.11 that game – one of the highest GAAs of his career.

His next two games were quite difficult. Ward had save percentages below 74% and a GAA above 12.5 in games against the Vancouver Stealth and Buffalo Bandits, respectively. Over his first six games played, Ward had a 1-3 record, but there were moments when you could see what he was capable of. Fast forward three years to 2017, and Ward was named the NLL’s Goaltender of the Year and made the All-Pro Team.

Buffalo Bandits v Colorado Mammoth during Game 3 of the NLL Finals at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, NY on June 18, 2022.
Photo by Bill Wippert

Among goaltenders who had played at least 50 minutes that season, Ward had the fourth-best GAA (10.89) – Miller and Rose were ahead of him – and he had the second-best save percentage (79.3%) behind Belanger, who had a save percentage of 79.6, who was now with the Stealth. By the end of the 2017 season, Ward had won 30 regular season games in the NLL.

Jump ahead again, this time to the beginning of the 2022-23 NLL Season. Ward, who is turning 32 next week, had doubled his regular season career wins total to 60 victories. He was now only six regular-season wins from passing Steve Dietrich for the 10th-most regular-season wins in NLL history. The year before, he had passed Evan Kirk, who has tallied 59 regular season wins (so far) in his NLL career.

The Mammoth started this season with a highly uncharacteristic 18-6 loss to the Saskatchewan Rush. Ward allowed 11 goals in 34 minutes to give him an even higher GAA than his very first start – his GAA this time was 19.36. But, they were 3-1 in their first 4 games. Ward was now up to 63 regular season wins.

After sitting out against the San Diego Seals in late January, Ward notched his 64th win as the team defeated the Georgia Swarm 13-10. What followed next was a bizarre stretch of five games where it seemed like Ward may have been possessed by the spirit of a goaltender who was much less capable than he between the pipes. In that span, Ward had a GAA of 12.6, including one start in mid-February where he allowed nine goals in 24 minutes against the Calgary Roughnecks and then was pulled from the game.

I should make an important note that Ward did win a game during this mini-slump, moving him up to 65 regular season wins and tying him with Dietrich for the 10th-most regular season wins.

Ward is bound to go through periods where things aren’t clicking. Because of the Mammoth’s defensive style, Ward faces many shots. They are a team that focuses more on forcing their opponents to take difficult shots rather than trying to stop them from taking as few shots as possible.

It’s because of that style that Ward was able to make history in the team’s Week 15 contest against the Roughnecks (although they lost that game 13-10). Before that game, Ward needed a mere four saves to pass Brandon Miller and crack the Top 10 all-time saves list – he made 23 saves that night. In each of Ward’s first eight seasons in the NLL, he managed to stop more than 500 shots – he made a career-high of 688 stops during the 2021-22 season.

“I think that just goes with the type of defense we play,” Ward said. “We’re not really a defense where we’re trying to stop teams from getting shots. It’s more or less, forcing teams to take shots from where we want them to shoot from. I’m very comfortable in a high-shot type of defense, and it’s been like that for the last number of years.”

The very next week, the Mammoth were playing the Bandits in Buffalo in a rematch of the 2022 NLL Finals. The last time these two squared off, they were also in Buffalo and the Mammoth won 10-8. This time around the Mammoth won again, but by an even wider margin – they won 13-8. This was the third game in a row facing the Bandits that Ward allowed only eight goals. It felt a little bit like deja vu.

What was most important about the win was not that Ward had now surpassed Deitrich for 10th all-time in goaltender wins, it was the fact that his team needed to get back to .500 and start winning in a big way again. This was only the second time in the last three years that the Mammoth had won a game by five or more goals.

“We wanted to make a statement to the league, and ourselves, that we’re still here, we still know how to win games, and we still know how to play at a very high level,” Ward said. “I think it was a perfect storm of feeling a little bit of desperation, having a familiarity [with the Bandits], and us wanting to prove a point.

“To get a win in that way against a team that has been so high scoring and high flying all year felt really good. Hopefully, that win can set the tone for us down this final stretch of the regular season.”

That’s not to say that putting his name in the Top 10 all-time in regular season wins didn’t mean anything to Ward. On the contrary, once he was able to put aside what the win meant for the team, he was able to relish in the joy of his achievement.

Ward can continue to climb the Top-10 in wins in the coming weeks. He is only two wins away from passing Rob Blasdell for ninth in wins and four wins from passing Dallas Eliuk for eighth all-time. He can also continue to climb up the all-time saves list (depending on Aaron Bold). Bold is currently 11 saves ahead of Ward in the rankings. Beyond Bold, Ward will have to wait until next season to jump even further up the list. He is more than 350 saves from passing Deitrich.

“It’s a huge honor,” Ward said. “Obviously, there’s been a lot of very talented goalies that have played in this league during the 30-something years that it’s been around. I’ve looked up to many of those guys in the Top 10, so having my name up there with them is a huge honor. Hopefully, I can continue playing for the foreseeable future and continue to climb up those ranks.”

When you’re actively choosing to allow the opposition to rack up their shot count, that means that the team has tremendous faith in the goaltender. Ward has been one of the most reliable and gifted goalies we’ve seen in this league over the last decade, and he always seems to step up in big moments. If holding the Bandits to eight goals in three-straight games (two of which were in the finals) isn’t an indicator of an all-world keeper, I don’t know what is.

Pat Coyle has been one of Ward’s head coaches since the goaltender entered the league. He knows what to expect from his guy between the pipes. It doesn’t matter if Ward is going through a brief slump (and you know it’s always going to be brief); Coyle understands what Ward brings to the Mammoth.

“I was thinking about the playoffs last year, and I don’t think anyone would argue that one of the main reasons we won the championship was because of how he played,” Coyle said. “I was thinking about how resilient we were as a team when Ryan Lee got hurt and Eli [McLaughlin] got hurt, but we were still able to be successful. I was thinking, if that was Dillon, that wouldn’t have been the case; it just wouldn’t have been. He is irreplaceable.”

Ward has now won an NLL title but wants to win more. Despite all the accolades he’s earned and all of the praise thrown his way, he never loses sight of what’s most important: winning the next game.

“I just want to put our team in a good position to win each game,” Ward said. “Most importantly right now, that’s Vancouver and getting a win over them and continuing to battle to clinch a playoff spot down the stretch.”

Ward has no plans of retiring anytime soon, and why would he at 32 years old? Ward is continued proof that Orangeville makes great goaltenders. Thank goodness the town produces them in mass instead of oranges. The NLL wouldn’t be as exciting to watch if it were the other way around.