Danielle Ward loved living in the Portland area.
She was also the leading scorer for the University of Southern Maine women’s ice hockey team her freshman and sophomore seasons.
But when she couldn’t afford it any more, she decided to return to her native Lansing, Mich., and attend Michigan State University, which doesn’t have a women’s hockey team.
However, University of Maine assistant coach Richard Reichenbach had known her from his days as an assistant coach at Cortland State (N.Y.) and suggested to newly appointed Black Bear head coach Maria Lewis that she give Ward an opportunity to play.
“I was hesitant because she was coming from a Division III school and I didn’t know if her skills could translate to the Division I level,” said Lewis. “(Reichenbach) was very confident that her skill and competitive nature would translate, so we took a chance on her.”
And it has paid off.
Ward is Maine’s fourth leading scorer with 11 points on five goals and six assists in 13 games. She capped Maine’s first win over New Hampshire since 2002 with an empty-net goal on Tuesday night in Lewiston. Maine won 4-1.
“It has worked out real well for us,” said Lewis. “Danielle is a real hard worker. She sees the ice real well and understands the game. She has a lot of energy and the big thing is that she is a competitor.”
Ward didn’t know she was coming to Maine until two weeks before school started.
She admitted that she didn’t know much about Orono.
“I had no idea,” said Ward. “I never saw the campus. I didn’t know where it was.”
But she definitely wanted to keep playing hockey.
“I’ll be depressed when the day comes that I can’t play any more,” said Ward.
Ward said a lot of people questioned her decision.
“They told me I wouldn’t get any ice time. So I knew I had to work twice as hard,” said Ward.
She had confidence in her ability but didn’t anticipate having this much success so early in her Division I career.
“It’s shocking. It has all come so fast,” said Ward.
The 5-foot-4 Ward is always noticeable thanks to her quickness, tenacity and energy.
“I always go all out. I don’t want to leave anything in the tank,” said Ward, who also plays on the power-play and penalty-killing units.
One of the major influences in her life has been her brother, Brian.
“He is 10 years older than me and I always looked up to him. He played hockey and I went to almost all of his games. I think I was at an ice rink the second day I was alive,” chuckled Ward.
She said the travel hockey programs for girls in Michigan are “amazing” and that eventually led her to USM.
“I visited the campus and fell in love with it right away,” said Ward.
She had 14 goals and 21 assists in 24 games in her first season at USM and followed that up with a 34-point campaign (12 & 22) a year ago.
Ward said the biggest adjustment from Division III to Division I is the speed of the game.
“It’s faster-paced. You have to make decisions a little faster. And the players are a lot bigger and stronger,” said Ward.
One thing that made her transition easier is there are two other Michigan natives on the team in goalie Brittany Ott and center Brittany Dougherty.
She had always been a center but has made the transition to right wing.
“It’s the first year I’ve ever played on the wing. It’s definitely something new. I’ve had to learn a lot about it,” said Ward.
The business management major enjoys Orono, despite the fact “it’s a little bit slower-paced than I’m used to,” and she feels the team is headed in the right direction, especially after ending UNH’s 28-game unbeaten streak (25-0-3) against the Bears.
“Everybody feels good right now. That definitely gave our confidence a boost. I think we’re going to be pretty strong the rest of the year,” said Ward.
Maine, now 5-6-2 overall, visits 2-11 Robert Morris (Pa.) tonight at 7 and Saturday at 2.