(photo courtesy the Abbotsford Heat)
Anybody hoping that the rebuild for the franchise will be a quick one are probably keeping tabs on the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat, and they’re probably pretty impressed by their performance thus far.
At the beginning of Decemberbthe Heat sit with a 17-6-0-2 record, good for first overall in the AHL. Better yet, the team’s doing it with a roster almost entirely bereft of veterans, with the possible exception of goaltender Joey MacDonald and team captain Dean Arsene.
Last week I had the chance to have a phone conversation with Abbotsford head coach Troy G. Ward, now in his third year at the helm of Calgary’s farmhands.
FlamesNation: I think it’s safe to say that the team’s off to a strong start. Can you talk a bit about how the team’s coming together this early in the season?
Troy G. Ward (TW): Just got a good group of people. It’s just like any family, anytime you have a good family things usually take themselves in their own hands and they run themselves, and we’ve got a good group of men here that are unselfish, high character, they’ve got good worth ethic and we’ve probably got a little bit more talent down here from 1 to 25 than we’ve had in my three years here.
FN: It’s been noted that you guys are being given more to work with in terms of talent. The Heat used to be a team that was known for work ethic, making games a bit of a war of attrition. Now you have that talent level to go with the work ethic.
TW: That’s fair. We got younger, which is more applicable to the AHL, we’re just a younger team. That’s one of the biggest assets. We are. We don’t rely on older guys that don’t move as well. A lot of younger talent that plays with good energy, and really don’t really get hung up on what power-play they are or what line they are, and not like a bunch of veterans like we’ve had the last few years that were more picky and choosey and set in their ways.
FN: You came into the Heat as an assistant coach a few years back and as a coach with a similar cohort of players. They came in as 20-year-olds and now those guys are 22 or 23 and knocking on the door of the NHL a bit. How do those guys fit in, and are they developing as players and as leaders down there?
TW: Yeah. I mean, we have the guys like Nemisz and Bancks and certain guys like Breen, who was here the first year with those guys, and he and Bouma are up there now. Certain guys like those guys all came in under the same umbrella of time and they’re maturing into leaders down here. Paul Byron’s been around a few years and he’s matured into one of the leaders.
He and Bancks are alternate captains, so not only are they doing good things on the ice in their own little ways of contributing, they’re doing good things off the ice and showing the young guys how to live here and how it goes, and most importantly just how to act and how we travel here. It’s a very difficult situation because we got 90 days on the road this year. Their maturity has been very much appreciated in terms of leadership.
FN: I spoke with Chris Breen recently about the atmosphere around the Heat this year. Last year the team got off to a great start, but because of the lockout there was a lot of uncertainty around the team and personnel and things like that. Considering that now, outside of recalls and injuries, you know what to expect. He mentioned that guys are having fun down there. Blair Jones mentioned that one of the things that made him successful was being able to focus on hockey and have fun. Can you talk a bit about the team’s atmosphere? Is a lot of the team’s success a product of working hard and having fun?
TW: I think that’s fair, and I think we know what to expect every day. I don’t think things changed too much. They really haven’t changed in three years in terms of how we prepare and how we have our meetings, how we do video, how we practice. A lot of that stuff doesn’t really change here. They kind of get used to knowing what to expect and they know what we’re going to do in certain times and certain places, and how we’re going to handle ourselves. I think it’s part of the day-to-day atmosphere that’s making it fun. We don’t get too high, we don’t get too low.
This team, in how we run it, is a process-oriented business here, it’s not a results-oriented business, so the process allows us to have some fun and just deal with the day-to-day interactions of being a team and how we grow together. We’re never too high if we win or lose and we’re never too low if we win or lose. We’re just kind-of a medium-rare team. That’s kind of our day-to-day approach. I think that all contributes to the atmosphere here.
FN: In terms of Blair Jones, he was one of the last cuts in Flames camp and he mentioned that he focused on hockey and tried to make the most of being there. Is that kind of approach and the success he had, did that make it so the organization had to reward him (with his call-up) for how hard he worked?
TW: Well, I think his summer prepared him. Like, he got in such great shape and really changed his lifestyle. He had a chance to be successful and then he was successful in camp, even though he got sent down, he did a lot of things better than he did prior to the year prior. His attitude was, because of all the hard work he put in, I thought his attitude was proper, so when he got here he was ‘I just don’t want to repeat what happened last spring here, I wasn’t really happy to be here and I kind-of went through the motions.’ And he and I sat down and talked about, like, which way are we going to go here, and then he kind-of agreed.
From that point on, he carried himself the proper way, like a good pro. He was a good professional. And I think the other part that you always have success, you always draw success from, is the rest of your teammates. He had a good supporting cast of positive people around him, with good attitudes. It kinda rubbed off on him and just channeled the whole thing in the right direction. So I think part of him going up and doing well, it gives him a lot of credit, but I youve also got to credit his teammates down here. I think they helped provide the atmosphere here for him to be good.
FN: The Flames haven’t been hit by injuries too badly yet, so we haven’t seen too many call-ups, but we’ve gotten to see Chad Billins up here, we got to see Max Reinhart, and now Blair Jones. For your group, you mentioned it’s a process-oriented group, does it help get guys to buy into the process when they see guys working hard at the AHL level will get a chance in the NHL?
TW: I think so for sure. I really believe that’s the best way to approach, no matter what level of coaching you’re at, you just deal with that part, you learn to control what you can control and you learn to get better every day from the good things you do and the poor things you do. A result of something doesn’t mean you’re going to get benched or a result of something doesn’t mean that we’re going to skate you or do more film work. It’s more of like, we’re going to stay with the process. We go through a daily process here and we believe that repition is the best teacher, and the guys understand that. And then they see that the guys that have went up have some success with that philosophy in the last couple of years, and with that philosophy they’ve been able to identify here, it’s the way we live and that’s the way we’re going to approach it, and then when we get up there we feel like we can step right in and help Bob and his staff.
FN: How’s Corban Knight looking? He was highly touted when he joined the organization and had a great collegiate career, and seems to have gotten off to a good start in the AHL.
TW: Corban’s doing great. He’s doing really, really well. I’m real proud of him. He’s working on his game. He’s working on it on both sides of the puck. He’s always been on the offensive side of it as a college player, and now he’s added more offense to it, but he’s working on his ability to play without the puck. He’s doing a good job defensively. We’re working on a lot of little details so when he does get his chance to go up, hopefully he doesn’t come back. It’s not real hard to play in the NHL today. It’s not a hard thing to do. It’s a hard thing to stay in the NHL. That’s what’s hard.
We’re just trying to make sure guys understand that when they get called up, it just isn’t a brief little thing where they’re up and they come back. We like to put guys up there when they’re fully ready to play and contribute. So that’s where we’re at with Corban’s development, we’re developing both sides of the puck but his offensive numbers and his ability are certainly NHL caliber.
FN: How’s Markus Granlund doing? He was injured during training camp and had a slow start once he got healthy, but he seems to have been all over the scoresheet over the past few weeks.
TW: He’s in kinda the same boat as Corban. They’re both guys with good offensive abilities. Flames fans will see that eventually here at some point, but while they have that skill, and they’re contributing offensively, we still need to work on the other side of their game and that’s their play without the puck and their ability to defend, their ability to play unbelievably hard, be good checkers.
Very similar if you compare it to Ben Street last year. He joined the organization, got a late call-up in the year, but his numbers were down prior to the year before in Wilkes-Barre. But we’ve worked on his checking game the whole year, worked on his ability to take pucks from people and his defensive side, and he improved so much he made the team out of camp and was doing great and he’s one of our best players down here and he’ll get recalled again at some point, too. We’re approaching Ben Street’s development the same way we are with Corban Knight and Markus Granlund. We’re just working real hard on some things they’re not real polished at right now, and trying to make sure that when they get their opportunity, they’re ready to seize that chance.
FN: How does Joni Ortio compare to the guy that fans saw in Abbotsford saw a couple years ago? I know he went back to Finland for awhile and played on the big ice, and he’s had some success so far.
TW: Joni just grew up as a man. He just matured as a person. Two years overseas has allowed him to mature and grow up and kinda get his skills better, but the big change with Joni is just him as a man and how he approaches things, his work ethic, his determination, just his detail in his game, his strength…
A lot of things have just fallen into place, you just needed some time. But I would say his biggest gifts now that he has is his maturity, where he didn’t have gifts in the past, not so much in his skills or his ability to play the position, was his maturity. He’s just grown up a lot and because of that it’s been a little easier game for him.