Heat players rejoice, Coach Ward in prep mode with NHL season fast approaching

Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward is an early riser, so he was aware sooner than most that the NHL lockout was essentially over.

Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward is an early riser, so he was aware sooner than most that the NHL lockout was essentially over.

When the league and its players association finally reached a tentative deal on a new collective bargaining agreement in the wee hours of Sunday morning – the 113th day of the work stoppage – Ward also realized his job was about to get a lot more complicated in a hurry.

The specifics are still hazy at this point, but later this week or early next, the best players on the Heat roster will be summoned to Calgary for an abbreviated training camp with the Flames. The ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies will in turn be pillaged for players to fill in with Abbotsford.

Roughly a week after that, the Heat will get some – but not all – of their players back from Calgary.

Ward’s controlled environment is going to be topsy-turvy, but he doesn’t mind. He’s elated for his high-end players, who now have a shot at playing in the NHL. And he relishes the challenge of trying to navigate uncertain circumstances.

“I accept the pressure of strategically trying to figure this out,” he said following Monday morning’s practice. “It’s the biggest thrill I have as a coach – putting together a depleted lineup and seeing how well we can play.

“It makes it tougher down here, but it’s going to be tough on everybody else (in the AHL), too. Everybody’s in the same boat, and the quality of depth in organizations will show up at this time.”

Ward said he hasn’t received any indication to this point as to when training camps would start or how many Heat players would be involved. The details should begin to emerge Wednesday, when the NHL’s Board of Governors meets in New York to vote on ratifying the new CBA.

“My guess is, we’ll know more Thursday,” he said. “I don’t think any camp would start, from what I’ve been told, until Saturday. That’s the earliest, and some people say it may wait until Monday.”

Forwards Sven Baertschi and Roman Horak and defenceman T.J. Brodie are locks to be recalled for training camp, and goalie Leland Irving is expected to battle Henrik Karlsson for the backup job behind Miikka Kiprusoff. Irving has been the No. 3 keeper on the Heat depth chart behind Barry Brust and Danny Taylor, but both of those goalies are on AHL-only contracts, while Irving is on a two-way NHL/AHL deal.

Media reports out of Calgary indicate that Heat leading scorer Ben Street will also be invited to training camp, while blueliner Steve McCarthy is likely to be signed to a player tryout contract.

Other Heat players who suited up for NHL games last season include Krys Kolanos, Paul Byron, Akim Aliu and Greg Nemisz.

Baertschi, the 20-year-old Swiss phenom who was the Flames’ first-round pick in the 2011 draft, may well have played his last game in Abbotsford. He was thrilled that the NHL and NHLPA had finally settled their differences.

“It’s been such a crazy roller-coaster, up and down, and I got really excited when I heard they got the deal done,” said Baertschi, who posted 18 points in 21 games with the Heat this season. “Hopefully I’ll get invited to camp and get this thing started. I don’t want to jinx anything, though – I haven’t heard anything yet.”

Compared to the wunderkid Baertschi, Street’s path in pro hockey has been anything but straightforward. The 25-year-old centre from Coquitlam wasn’t drafted at all – he signed a two-way AHL/ECHL contract out of the University of Wisconsin and spent his first two pro seasons with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers and the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

After leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with 57 points in 71 games in 2011-12, he landed his first NHL deal from the Flames last summer. Thus, the upcoming training camp would represent his first realistic shot at cracking a big-league roster.

“That dream you have as a kid of playing in the NHL is coming closer,” said Street, who leads the Heat with 25 points and also leads the AHL in shots on goal with 139. “All the stuff with the lockout is out of your control. Now that there is a season and there’s going to be games played, I can control getting myself there and hopefully try to get a spot.

“I feel like I’ve put myself in a decent spot with what we’ve done here. If I do get a chance to play in some games, I’m hoping I’ll be able to slot in and not miss too much of what systems they want to do, stuff like that.”