The Abbotsford Heat have a new sheriff in town, but he won’t necessarily come out guns a-blazin’.
In terms of coaching style, new Heat bench boss Troy Ward seems to be a sharp departure from his predecessor Jim Playfair, who exited the organization in June to take an assistant coaching gig with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Playfair brought the fiery intensity of a former player to the head coaching role. He was an old-school bench boss who wasn’t afraid to crank up the volume when delivering his message to the players.
Ward, an assistant under Playfair last season, would be classified as more of a player’s coach. The St. Paul, Minn. native, when prompted, will wax eloquent on how he hopes to foster a family atmosphere within the team, and help his players overcome the insecurities that keep them from reaching their potential.
In the macho world of hockey, it’s rare to hear that type of rhetoric.
“It’s going to be a lot different,” predicted Heat defenceman T.J. Brodie, pondering the coaching transition. “As far as the way he (Ward) coaches, he says he’s a life coach. He wants us to be better men.
“Last year, a lot of what he would talk to me about was maturity off the ice. Like if he came to my house, would my bedroom be clean, and the dishes be clean? It’s a little bit different.”
Ward brings a unique, nurturing approach to managing people, which he attributes to his unconventional rise through the coaching ranks. Unlike many pro coaches, he did not play professionally – his career peaked at the NCAA Div. 3 level.
Since transitioning to behind the bench, Ward has coached at nearly every level of hockey – junior, college, ECHL, AHL, NHL. The big-league stint was from 1997 to 2000, as a Pittsburgh Penguins assistant under Kevin Constantine.
“I’ve always needed the support of other people to get to where I am,” he explained.
“I’m a guy who’s only as good as my support group . . . (and it’s important) that I make them feel good in order to be good people and good performers.”
Brodie was a frequent resident in Playfair’s doghouse over the first half of last season – the head coach employing a tough-love approach to modify the rookie blueliner’s occasional lack of attention to detail in the defensive zone.
To hear Brodie tell it, Ward essentially played the good cop to Playfair’s bad cop. When the bench boss was breathing fire in his direction, Ward would sidle up afterward and translate the high-decibel message.
“At times, I didn’t know what he (Playfair) wanted me to do different, so it was tough,” Brodie explained. “But Wardo helped me out a lot last year, because he knew what he meant. If I didn’t understand it, I’d go to him and he’d tell me, or go through video and show me.”
Brodie doesn’t expect Ward to relate to the players exactly the same way now that he’s the head coach, and Ward concedes that’s true to an extent.
“There’s times, obviously, where I’m going to have to have the hammer, and I understand that,” he said. “I have to hold them accountable, I have to make them better, I have to push them.
“But I’m still going to be Troy. I’ll still be the guy who will probably put my arm around them and walk through the airport with them and talk to them, because that’s who I am by nature.”
Ward doesn’t come across as a disciplinarian, but he calls himself a “day-to-day stickler” who has little patience for people who aren’t prepared.
“I’m probably going to be pretty intense drill-to-drill (at practice),” he said. “I probably don’t have the ebb and flow that some coaches do. I have more of a consistent hammer. It’s like, excellence is tolerated, perfection is preferred. That’s where I’m at.”
Ward places a strong emphasis on clear-cut communication with players – the “truth aspect,” as he calls it.
“I define truth as clarity and hope,” he explained. “A lot of people in this world think honesty is negativity. Well, if I’m going to belittle a player to death and say I was truthful to them, there isn’t a lot of hope in that message.
“(A player) is going to walk out of my office, and he’s going to know the clarity of the situation that we have at hand, and he’s going to know there’s hope.
“But he’s going to know how to get to the hope. That’s what’s the most important to me.”