Through the first quarter of the 2013-14 American Hockey League season, the Abbotsford Heat are the hottest team in the league. This a tad surprising, you could argue, when you consider that the Heat are the farm team of the Calgary Flames, who recently declared themselves in a rebuild.
In Abbotsford, the philosophy on the ice and on the management side has changed as well in two key ways. First, the Flames decided to change the on-ice systems to mirror the NHL’s club. Second, the Flames have placed assistant to the general manager Craig Conroy at the helm of the AHL club, and Conroy has chosen to emphasize youth on the club, rather than fill the balance of the roster with AHL veterans (as has happened in the past).
These changes, combined with some hard work by head coach Troy G. Ward and his club, have resulted in a 17-5-0-1 record prior to American Thanksgiving. Conroy admitted that he was impressed by how well the team has performed, especially given their age and relative inexperience at pro hockey.
“Going into the season you don’t know how they’re all going to handle it,” said Conroy. “How quickly they’re going to come along and, to be honest, we have made lots of mistakes and we’ve had to sit guys out, but over the course of time people have been getting better, they feel better about their game, and Troy’s been doing a great job working with them.”
Leading the way for the Abbotsford Heat thus far are an interesting blend of players, primarily first-to-third year pros with a few veterans spinkled in key spots of the line-up. Highly-touted Flames prospects like Corban Knight, Markus Granlund, Ben Hanowski, and Joni Ortio have been performing well, but so have a wide array of other players. Brett Olson is on an American League deal and has impressed Flames brass, while Ben Street and Chad Billins are a bit older than their teammates, but have both impressed enough to earn looks in the NHL this year. Flames defensemen Chris Breen has split his time between Calgary and Abbotsford this season after spending the last three seasons with the Heat. He shared Conroy’s positive assessment of the farm club.
“They’re a very competitive bunch,” said Breen. “They’re having a lot of fun down there, and I mean, it’s a great atmosphere down there at the moment. You know, winning games, obviously it’s going to be. They’re just having a lot of fun and the coaches are doing a great job with a lot of the young guys and the older guys are doing a great job with some of the younger guys, too. Playing good, playing smart and playing the games, you know?”
Breen noted that the team doesn’t have a lot of older players, as they have in past years. He suggested that the cohesiveness throughout the Heat’s roster may be a result of having a lot of the players being in roughly the same age group. Many of the team’s veterans and leaders are quite young – alternate captains Paul Byron and Carter Bancks are both just 24 years old.
“I didn’t see [Steve Begin, currently injured] at all when I was down on the trip, but Joey MacDonald and [team captain Dean] Arsene are both older guys. Other than that, I think [Zach] McKelvie is the next-oldest and it’s his second or third year in the league, I think,” said Breen.”It just helps the younger guys. There’s not much of an age gap, so I think they just feel really welcome talking to those guys, hanging out with those guys. A lot of them are living together and whatnot, so I think it just helps bonding with the whole team.”
The Heat got off to a strong start last season, only to fall victim to uncertainty and inconsistency when the NHL lockout ended and snatched away their best players (such as now-NHLers T.J. Brodie and Sven Baertschi). Now, with a more balanced attack and a renewed team concept, Abbotsford is off to a strong start once again, without the looming specter of a lockout hanging over them. Conroy noted that the key to the team’s success, both in terms of in the standings and in preparing players for the NHL, may be rather simple.
“They’re having fun,” said Conroy. “It’s a game. In the end, hockey’s a game. You want to play hard, have fun and enjoy it. And I think that’s what they’re doing. I think sometimes – we had an older team in years past – maybe guys are disappointed, they’re not in the NHL, they feel like somebody took advantage and there’s a reason why they’re not there. They maybe weren’t as happy just to be playing hockey. They felt like someone had done a wrong by them. But this group, they’re so young. They’re all trying to prove themselves. They’re all having fun. They all stick together. Even after the game the other night, I think they all went out together. I could hear them getting their plans together. And that’s great. That’s what it takes. You want to build that in the NHL, but you want that in the American League, too, because these guys are going to be going up and down and you want it to be a seamless transition.”
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.