Welcome to the Vancouver Giants’ Ward-Sward era.
That’s in reference to the Western Hockey League club’s new leadership tandem – a duo with unique Abbotsford connections.
Troy Ward, former head coach of the now-defunct Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League from 2011-14, is embarking on his first season as Giants bench boss.
He presided over a captaincy vote last week, and Abby native Dalton Sward – a 20-year-old centre – was chosen by his teammates to wear the C.
“I think that’s the biggest award you can get in sports,” Ward said, alluding to the honour of being voted into the top player leadership role by teammates. “He came out the winner unanimously. I think it speaks to the fact that he’s a leader on and off the ice.
“It tells me a lot about Dalton, not only as a competitive guy but as a human being. Good for him.”
Despite their significant ties to the Abbotsford hockey scene, Ward and Sward’s paths didn’t cross until this fall.
Ward was hired in July to take the Giants’ coaching reins, following the departure of the legendary Don Hay, who left to join the Kamloops Blazers. Hay guided the club to the Memorial Cup in 2007, but hadn’t gotten Vancouver past the first round of the playoffs since 2010. Ward is tasked with shepherding them back to those lofty heights.
The early returns were solid – in Ward’s regular-season debut on Sept. 20, the Giants beat the Victoria Royals 3-1, outshooting them 45-12 along the way.
Moving from pro hockey back to junior hasn’t been a difficult adjustment for Ward. The major difference is the amount of teaching he needs to do, and the amount of practice repetitions necessary to get those lessons across.
“I enjoy the teaching part of the game,” he said. “It just takes a little bit more patience, at times, with this level.”
In Sward, Ward has a veteran leader who is heading into his fifth full season with the Giants.
Sward, who measures 6’1” and 185 pounds, isn’t a prolific scorer, but he does chip in offensively – he notched a career-high 18 goals and 12 assists for 30 points in 56 games last season.
It’s his two-way game that truly endears him to coaches. Sward is responsible in all three zones, a willing shot-blocker, and a key penalty-killer for the Giants.
To this point in his career, Sward hasn’t had his name called in the NHL draft, but he participated in the Vancouver Canucks’ summer rookie camp in 2012 and harbours dreams of landing a pro contract when his junior eligibility expires at the end of this season.
“It goes a lot faster than you think,” he said with a wry chuckle, reflecting on his final season of junior. “I still feel like I’m 16 years old some days.
“Obviously every kid’s dream is to play pro hockey, and that’s still my dream,” he added. “I need to show leadership, and I need to put up some more points – that’s obviously going to help. But I don’t want to get too focused on points. I just go out and play my game, play hard in the corners, go to the net hard and play physical.”
Sward, who centres the Giants’ third line flanked by Matt Bellerive and Jackson Houck, said he’s enjoyed working with Ward. “He’s obviously a lot different than Don,” he said. “Don is a coach who was old-school, I guess you could say – just chip it in, and work your bag off to get the puck. Troy’s a lot different – he likes carrying the puck in and making plays, working the puck down low and using your chemistry. It’s obviously two different styles, and I feel Troy’s style is really going to help me develop my game.”
As Sward’s hometown prepares to embark on a season without a major hockey tenant at the 7,000-seat Abbotsford Centre – the franchise formerly known as the Heat is now located in Glens Falls, N.Y. – Ward expressed disappointment at the situation.
“I saw quite a few Heat fans at our opener last Saturday – there were a lot of Heat jerseys there,” he said. “I just feel bad for those people that were pretty passionate.”