When the Calgary Flames announced that they were parting ways with head coach Brent Sutter, the hockey world was abuzz with speculation regarding what highly-touted coach would take over the job. Shockingly, among the names brought up was one that I was oddly familiar with from my two years covering the team – Abbotsford Heat coach Troy Ward.
Call it a gut feeling, but I firmly expect Troy Ward to be named Flames head coach within the next month.
It’s a probable move for many reasons. The Flames brass chose him for the Abbotsford head coach position and he exceeded expectations, producing a proverbial Goofus and Gallant comparison between the complete buy-in in Abbotsford and the comedy of errors in Calgary.
The contrast becomes a bit starker when one realizes that despite being “devastated” by injuries and call-ups (as characterized by Flames general manager Jay Feaster at the post-mortem press conference), the Abbotsford Heat made the playoffs and had home ice advantage in the first round. Calgary? They’re golfing.
It’s also probably worth noting that Ward is the only coaching candidate that the Flames have publicly acknowledged.
AN EXPERIENCED CANDIDATE
Troy Ward has been a hockey coach for two decades. In addition to being a head coach in three different leagues, he’s been an assistant coach and assistant general manager. He runs a hockey school. He’s got a masters degree in sports administration.
He’s got experience that goes beyond just being a "hockey guy".
THE GREAT COMMUNICATOR
In the process of putting together a profile on Ward for The Hockey Writers earlier this season, I spoke with nearly every single Flames player who spent time under him on the farm. None of them had a bad thing to say about him, and most of the players ranted and raved about the importance of structure and details on his team. Even Roman Horak, who had spent a single weekend in Abbotsford when I spoke with him.
Not only was Ward praised by his players for his strategies, but also for his ability to talk straight to them. Several players noted their respect for Ward partially stemmed from his willingness to speak honestly and clearly about what players needed to do to improve. Not coincidentally, the Heat produced a lot of NHL-ready players under Ward.
THE PROJECT MANAGER
Moreso than possibly any other Flames coach in recent memory, including head coaches, Troy Ward was able to manage a whole lot of wacky projects. His major issue was balancing the competitive edge of the club – helping the Heat win games – with the need to allow Flames prospects to develop into NHL-ready players by putting them in a wide array of situations. But Ward also had a few side projects:
Krys Kolanos made the Heat on a try-out, despite missing a year of hockey due to a hip injury. He still had a few of his old “offense-first” habits, though, and Ward spent the year trying to break them.
The Heat juggled four goaltenders over the year, including balancing ice-time for Leland Irving and the surprisingly strong Danny Taylor. He also worked around finding ice-time for Henrik Karlsson (on a conditioning stint) and Joni Ortio when both were on the roster.
Akim Aliu, he of a checkered reputation and boisterous energy, represents perhaps Ward’s biggest triumph. Told to cut his hair and completely change his mindset upon arriving in Abbotsford, Aliu embraced two-way hockey to the point where he was given a call-up to Calgary at the end of the season.
THE GUTS TO DO IT HIS WAY
Arguably the single biggest positive about Troy Ward is his “my way or the highway” stance. Ward has a very specific notion of how his team should play and behave and, when players fall short of that benchmark, they get punished.
Ryan Howse remained overweight after training camp and was sent home for a month to learn about nutrition and dropped the weight. He re-joined the club and after toiling in the Heat’s bottom-six for awhile, he was rewarded with spot duty in more offensive situations.
After a particularly lousy game from his club, Ward sat five veteran players (including AHL All-Star Kolanos) and barred them from the building for the next game. The move helped the Heat snap their losing streak at that point. Ward sat key players throughout the season and playoffs for poor performance, including both Aliu and Kolanos.
THE LOGICAL CHOICE
It’s often said that the first step towards solving a problem is admitting that you have one. The Calgary Flames have a problem. They have missed the playoffs for the past three years and haven’t won a playoff round in eight years. Moreso, their veteran core has been accused of floating and inconsistency under a bunch of different coaches.
With all due respect to Roger Millions’ latest column for Sportsnet, where he noted that Calgary may not be the most enticing option for free agent coaches, I think he’s missing the point. Bringing in another established NHL coach is a band-aid solution. It glosses over the systemic flaws in Calgary.
Bringing in Troy Ward not only sends a message to the NHL that the Calgary Flames are aware that they have a problem and are taking steps to solve it, but also tells the players the same thing.