Throughout the past two seasons, the Calgary Flames have remained on the outside of the National Hockey League’s playoff picture. With fans a bit fretful over the club’s future, eyes inevitably turned to their affiliate, the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat.
Unfortunately, the Heat haven’t set the world on fire over the past two seasons, either.
However, this season has been markedly different. Throughout the team’s existence in the Fraser Valley, the Heat have frequently and seemingly inevitably been short on bodies. Over the past two years, the primary culprit was injuries – speculated by some to be connected to the team’s crazy travel schedule as the most northwestern AHL club. This season, the Heat have been missing several bodies due to call-ups to the Flames (as well as a few injuries). At present, the Heat are missing six regulars from their line-up as a result of call-ups, injuries and trades. But despite all this, the team just keeps winning.
What the heck is happening in Abbotsford? How can such a depleted team keep winning, despite icing a roster that’s held together by a mix of AHL veterans, loaners and try-out players?
A quick survey of the Heat graduates who have filtered through Calgary over the past few weeks points the finger to one primary reason the team continues to succeed. Coaching. Namely, the team’s head coach, Troy Ward.
Ward became the Heat’s head coach this summer after a season spent as an assistant under Jim Playfair. Prior to that, Ward coached virtually everywhere. He’s been a head coach in the NCAA, USHL and ECHL and an assistant in the NCAA, IHL, AHL and NHL. Overall, Ward has spent over two decades behind the bench. Possibly more noteworthy than Ward’s resume is the fact that his players absolutely rave about him.
Flames centre Roman Horak spent a weekend in Abbotsford back in early December, playing two games before returning to the bigs. The rookie noted some slight differences between Ward and Flames bench boss Brent Sutter.
“Troy’s a little bit more structured,” said Horak. “Video everyday and a lot of meetings. He’s an experienced coach, so he can offer a lot of new things. He can teach us a lot of things, especially new guys and young guys.”
Flames blueliner T.J. Brodie spent a great deal of time under Ward last year with the Heat and earlier this season prior to his call-up to Calgary. Brodie explained Ward’s attention to detail, including looking at the position of opponents’ toes to clue into plays, makes him a strong coach.
“He’s a new type of coach,” assessed Brodie. “He really thinks the game out to the smallest details. He studies everything on video.”
Goaltender Leland Irving was relied upon heavily in Abbotsford over the past few seasons, first under Jim Playfair and later under Ward. He praised Ward’s ability to develop and teach players.
“He’s a great teacher,” said Irving. “Very intelligent coach. His details of the game are second to none. He’s very organized. He’s very passionate about the game and I think the passion he brings shows and comes out in the players on the ice. He knows the game very well, but his ability to get his message across in communicating with his players is incredible. I think he’s in a great position there where he’s able to help those guys out and develop them and make them into NHL players.”
Joe Piskula, an alternate captain in Abbotsford, shared his long-time teammate’s assessment of Ward’s skills.
“He’s a real good, detailed coach,” said Piskula. “He really communicates well with the players. He’s really good systematically, all over the ice, having everybody on the same page. Kinda making a collective team effort. Just takes a lot of pride in the details of the game.”
The most recent recall to Calgary, winger Lance Bouma, was with the Heat during their recent string of injuries and experienced the depleted line-up’s success first-hand. He felt that the team concept evident in Abbotsford really helps players be ready for the NHL, as well as continue to win down on the farm.
“He works a lot with us, just teaching a lot of stuff on film with us and making sure we’re ready when we get a chance to come up to the NHL,” said Bouma. “He’s a great guy to talk to. He’s a good guy to everyone in the room. He’s good with every person in that room and treats everyone the same. Guys really respect him and really want to play hard for him.”
The Heat remain near the top of the standings of the American Hockey League as they head into the back-end of their schedule. As the Flames gradually get healthier, it’s likely that many of the recalled players will return to Abbotsford. While that will definitely be a welcome sight for Troy Ward and the coaching staff, it may not be entirely necessary for the team’s success. If the Flames believe that creating a winning environment in Abbotsford is the key to developing future players – and management’s remarks seem to indicate that is the case – Ward is following their dictate nearly to the letter.
The tenure of Troy Ward as head coach in Abbotsford has been, thus far, a pretty big success. The Heat keep winning and the players being recalled to Calgary have helped out the Flames immediately upon their arrival. Given Ward’s success, and the growing trend of strong AHL coaches being poached by NHL clubs for their coaching staffs, the Flames would be well-advised to do what they can to keep him in the fold for as long as they can. It’s often said that the future contributors to NHL rosters can be found on the farm. In the Flames’ case, their top prospect in the AHL may, in fact, be the head coach.
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.