To gain an insight into Troy Ward’s coaching philosophy, it’s instructive to look at how he spends his off-season.
Ward, named the new head coach of the Abbotsford Heat on Thursday, is a big believer in what he terms a “holistic” approach to developing hockey players. His “Hockey and Sons” skills camp, which he operates each summer in his home state of Minnesota, is a case in point.
“I’ve got more than 500 parents and kids coming in this summer,” said Ward, 49. “I teach them how to co-exist in the sport together, and how parents can mentor the kids.
“I’d say that’s how I’m going to manage this (Heat) team,” he added. “We have to develop hockey players, and I find the best way to do that is to stress being a good human being. I’m a patient teacher.”
Ward joined the Heat for the 2010-11 season, serving as an assistant coach under bench boss Jim Playfair. When Playfair departed earlier this month for an associate coaching position with the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, Ward was an obvious candidate to succeed him, given his reputation for solid teaching and for having a strong rapport with the players.
Jay Feaster, general manager of the NHL parent Calgary Flames, told The News that Flames management was impressed with Ward’s plan for developing and communicating with players.
The fact that Heat players, in their season-ending exit meetings, spoke very highly of Ward also weighed in his favour.
“One of the young men said, ‘I’d go through a wall for that guy,'” Feaster said. “That’s an important aspect of it. While we weren’t just going to take those opinions and say we weren’t going to look any further, certainly knowing how the players felt about him was a big plus.”
The Heat had a defence-first mindset under Playfair, and last season, they did a solid job keeping the puck out of their own net – their 212 goals against was tied for the seventh-best total in the league. But they also struggled mightily to bulge the twine – their 186 goals scored ranked last in the AHL.
Ward said that last season, emphasizing defence was an appropriate choice, given the fact that the Heat were the AHL’s youngest team.
This coming year, he plans to spend more time teaching offence, and installing more of a puck-possession game.
“My belief in today’s game is, the offensive part is the hardest part of the game,” he said. “We’re going to try to keep the puck as much as we can, and try to stay on the offensive side of things.
“And when we don’t have it, we want to be in pursuit of it really quickly. We don’t want to sit back. We want to play aggressive defensively, so we can get the puck back and keep it as long as we can.
“Last year we decided to sit back a little more because we found it more advantageous for our young group. But we have to keep in mind that this group, going forward, isn’t young anymore. They’ve had a whole year in the American Hockey League, so we’ve got to get them up and moving, in my opinion.”
Ward is currently the lone member of the Heat hockey operations staff, after the departures of Playfair and former assistant Steve O’Rourke, who was hired as head coach of the junior A Langley Rivermen. He’ll be working with Feaster to round out the staff, which will have a new configuration.
“I don’t know whether we’ll have one or two assistant coaches,” Ward said. “But we’ll have a full-time strength coach, and we’ll have a full-time goalie coach in Abbotsford. There’s going to be a different dynamic to the staff.”
Ward’s resumé includes coaching stops in the NCAA, ECHL and NHL, where he served as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins for three seasons (1997-2000). Prior to joining the Heat, he spent three years with the AHL’s Houston Aeros, first as an assistant coach and later adding the assistant general manager title.
Ward said he was “elated” to step up into the head coaching role in Abbotsford.
“It’s been a journey,” Ward noted. “A couple of different times, I’ve had to get off the coaching carousel, so to speak, for family reasons. Where I am today is basically a reflection on my parents, my family, and all the players and coaches I’ve worked with over the years.”