It was nearly a decade ago that Troy Ward successfully recruited Ben Street to the University of Wisconsin.
Next season, he may finally get to coach him.
Street, a 25-year-old Coquitlam native, signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Abbotsford Heat’s NHL parent club, the Calgary Flames, last week. Should he end up playing close to home with the Heat, he’d see a familiar face behind the bench.
“I recruited Ben to the University of Wisconsin from the BCHL [where he starred with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks], and about the time he got there, I left to pursue another opportunity,” Heat head coach Ward said. “We’ve been in contact over the years, and I’ve worked with him in the summers, training with him.”
For Street, it will be nice to have the opportunity to play closer to home, and for Ward.
“He’s a great developer,” Street told Black Press on his cell phone Wednesday from Madison, Wis. “His methods don’t just click with me, but with other guys, too. His motto is ‘I’m the teacher, you’re the coach.’ He teaches you how to do things but you’ve got to figure it out on your own.”
After playing out his NCAA eligibility with the Wisconsin Badgers, Street began his pro career in 2010-11 with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers. Ward helped pave the way for the 5’11”, 185-pound centre to move up to the AHL, putting in a good word for Street with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach John Hynes.
Street excelled with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ affiliate, notching 12 goals and 11 assists for 23 points in 36 games to finish out the 2010-11 campaign, and posting 27-30-57 in 71 games last season.
With the Flames retooling after missing the playoffs for a third straight year, Street believes his chances of making their parent club eventually are better than they seemed with the talent-rich Penguins.
“That was one of my biggest reasons for my decision [to sign with the Flames],” Street said. “I really like my chances in terms of moving up. I have nothing but good things to say about the Penguins’ organization but there wasn’t a whole lot of room there, especially down the middle. With me being a centre man, I think I’ll have a better opportunity with the Flames.”
Ward had minimal input on the Flames’ decision to sign Street when he hit free agency on July 1, but he believes his best days are ahead, based on his increased offensive output as a second-year AHLer.
“Ben’s got a really good feel for the game, both offensively and defensively,” Ward said. “He’s really good on faceoffs, and he can play on the penalty kill and the power play. His shot is very much an NHL shot.”
Street’s father, Rob, said he’s ecstatic over the prospect of seeing his son play more in living colour only a one-hour drive or so down the freeway.
“It’s really exciting,” Rob said. “He’s worked really hard to get this opportunity and hopefully it will be the next step for him to get to the big leagues.”
Ben plans to drive with his girlfriend and dog from Wisconsin next week to train for the rest of summer in the Vancouver area before attending the Flames’ training camp in September, and likely joining the Heat after that.
“Abbotsford’s about as close to home since I played junior in Salmon Arm,” Ben said, adding with a chuckle: “My parents’ travel budget will be cut down considerably.”
– with files from Larry Pruner, Black Press
HEAT SIGN MCKELVIE
The Heat also added defenceman Zach McKelvie last week, inking the former Providence Bruin to a one-year AHL contract.
The 6’2″, 200-pounder is defensive-minded in his approach, posting one goal and one assist in 39 games with the Boston Bruins’ affiliate last season.
A trio of Heat forwards – Paul Byron, Akim Aliu and Dustin Sylvester – will solidified their returns to the organization after signing one-year contracts last week.
Byron and Aliu inked two-way NHL deals. Byron scored 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists) in 39 AHL games last season, hitting his stride offensively late in the campaign on a line with Sylvester and Krys Kolanos.
Aliu found a home on the Heat’s third line and contributed 10 goals and four assists in 42 games.
Sylvester, who signed an AHL contract, was named the Heat’s rookie of the year after posting 15-19-34 in 64 games.
Goalie Leland Irving has received a qualifying offer from the Flames, but he’s the last of the team’s restricted free agents who has yet to agree on a new deal.
RHEAULT FINDS NEW HOME WITH PANTHERS
Jon Rheault and Brian Connelly, key contributors for the Heat last season, both bid adieu in free agency.
Rheault, a speedy, versatile forward, signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Florida Panthers, while offensive-minded blueliner Connelly reached a two-year, two-way pact with the Minnesota Wild.
Connelly was an AHL second team all-star who finished second among league defenceman in scoring last season (6-46-52 in 72 games). But losing Rheault might sting the Heat even more. He was one of the squad’s longest-tenured players, having arrived in Abbotsford late in the Heat’s inaugural season of 2009-10, and Ward called him “the heart and soul of the team” last season.
Rheault was open to returning, and he had the option to come back on an AHL deal. But the Flames declined to match the Panthers’ offer of a two-way NHL pact.
“I have nothing but unbelievable things to say about the Calgary and Abbotsford Heat organizations and all that they’ve done for me over the past two or three years,” he said. “At the same time, I’m very excited for the opportunity in Florida, and I feel like this is the break I’ve been waiting for. Hopefully this leads to playing in the NHL soon.”
Rheault struggled through a series of injuries last year – had a hamstring injury towards the start of the campaign, a concussion at midseason, and finally a late-season abdominal injury that necessitated surgery after the Heat were eliminated from the playoffs.
But he was effective when healthy, and posted 16-17-33 in 47 games.
He departs as the fledgling franchise’s all-time leading scorer, though as those types of records go, his total of 72 points is rather modest.
“I don’t think that’ll last very long, especially with the likes of Ben Walter and Krys Kolanos still in the system,” he noted with a chuckle. “I’m happy with that accomplishment, but I look forward to one of those guys breaking it.”
“Jon is a tough loss for our organization, most importantly as a man,” Ward said. “He was a good teammate to a lot of guys. Obviously we’re going to miss his speed and a lot of the things he did for us – he was on the penalty kill, he was on the power play, he ate up a lot of minutes. Those are tough minutes to lose. But we’re excited that he gets a new opportunity, and we feel like we’ve been a big part of his life.”
WARD LIKES WHAT HE SEES
Ward is running the on-ice sessions at the Flames’ development camp in Calgary this week, featuring a collection of Heat players, draft choices and free agent invitees.
The Heat bench boss said the players expect to shine have, for the most part, done so. He pointed to top prospects Sven Baertschi and John Gaudreau, and Heat alums Carter Bancks and Greg Nemisz as being among the standouts.
“Carter Bancks, I thought, was exceptional on Day 1,” Ward noted.