Sports

Ward's future a fascinating summer storyline for Heat

Heat bench boss Troy Ward is being touted as a candidate for the Calgary Flames
Heat bench boss Troy Ward is being touted as a candidate for the Calgary Flames' vacant head coaching position.
— image credit: John Van Putten file photo

You can bet on just about anything in sports these days, including the NHL job prospects of Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward.

Last week, the gambling website Bodog.ca offered a prop bet on who the Calgary Flames will hire to replace Brent Sutter as head coach. They installed Ward as the favourite at 7/4, ahead of the likes of former big-league bench bosses Bob Hartley (5/2), Craig MacTavish (6/1) and Mike Sullivan (8/1).

Informed of his odds during Monday's season-ending press conference, Ward had a good chuckle.

"I wouldn't put any mortgages on that," he cracked. "Or any kind of money."

Whether or not wagering on Ward would pay dividends in the end, the very fact he's managed to come from off the radar to inject his name into the conversation for NHL head coaching gigs is perhaps the most fascinating storyline to emerge from a 2011-12 Heat campaign that was chock-full of them.

What Ward accomplished with the Heat was impressive on its own – he guided the club to a franchise-record 42 wins in the regular season, despite the fact the AHL trimmed its schedule from 80 to 76 games. Abbotsford also put together an 11-game winning streak (also a team record) bridging the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, and advanced to the second round of the post-season before bowing out against the Toronto Marlies.

But how Ward went about his business was equally important.

He provided a steady hand on the rudder while the team weathered a rash of injuries and NHL recalls during the second half of the season, and along the way, he helped script a series of stirring rags-to-riches hockey tales.

Krys Kolanos and Akim Aliu arrived in Abbotsford carrying the "high-maintenance" label (and Kolanos had missed all of the 2010-11 season due to hip surgery). Rookie winger Ryan Howse was out of shape, to the point he was given a month off to get his fitness and nutrition habits sorted out. Danny Taylor was a journeyman goalie who had worn 12 different jerseys in just six pro seasons.

All thrived under Ward.

"The locker room . . . is a very sacred place for a player and a coach," Ward began, attempting to explain the Heat's success with reclamation projects.

"That group of players had a bond like no other. They felt very comfortable in their strengths and their deficiencies within that room, and they always knew they had support.

"All of these players were able to play to their potential and reach new heights because of how the players treated each other. That was really crucial in our team development."

Heat captain Quintin Laing said Ward brings out the best in his players because he demands a lot.

"When we got sent down from Calgary (after training camp), one of his first messages was, 'Excellence is tolerated, perfection is preferred,'" Laing said. "He also had a little saying that he just wanted us to go 1-and-0 every day. That's how we broke it down.

"He always talked to me about being a better father and helping me out that way, and giving me little tips for providing leadership for the younger players in the dressing room. I think we really communicated well. He's a very passionate guy and he wants to win, but he wants to make you a better man first, and that just translates to being a better hockey player."

Flames general manager Jay Feaster is on the record saying that Ward will be considered for the Calgary head-coaching vacancy. While Ward said his focus is on wrapping up the Heat's season-ending paperwork at this point, he acknowledged he'd love to move up the ladder with the Flames.

"I don't really tend to worry about things I can't control – that's just who I am as a person," explained Ward, who is under contract with the Heat for next season.

"Like any athlete at this level, if you do the best with what you have and you put your best foot forward, you hope that at some point in time, whether it's this organization or some organization out there, that they want to give you an opportunity.

"And obviously I'm in this organization – I'd want it to come here. I'm like any player . . . they want to play and wear the 'C'. I want to do the same thing, but I don't ultimately control that."

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