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CALGARY — There was a stretch, Rocky Thompson remembers, somewhere between 2003 and ’05 when he was feeling it.
Skating well, racking up his usual pile of penalties in the American Hockey League playing for the Edmonton Oilers’ farm team, life was cruising along.
Or so he thought.
Geoff Ward, providing some tough love to a tough guy, respectfully, disagreed.
“I remember him bringing me into his office and I thought I was playing good,” Thompson said, chuckling as he recalled the conversation. “He went over a segment that we would do at the time and he said: ‘We need you to be better than this.’
“I was kind of like: ‘I thought I was playing good.’ And it wasn’t like he was mean to me, or anything. He thought I could do more. He told me what I needed to do. And it was good.
“I had a great relationship with him — I played hard for him. After that, I had even more respect for him because I was seeing things differently. He was just honest, and he did it in a different way.”
As a former school teacher in Ontario, Ward honed his communication and listening skills and fine-tuned his ability to create caring, purposeful, empowering relationships between himself and his students.
As a proud father of four — Cody, Sawyer, Kylie, and Hannah — the 57-year-old from Waterloo, Ont., is patient and kind. That much is obvious.
As a hockey coach for the past 30 years, Ward’s impact has been significant at every stop along the way. It also helps paint a picture of a man deeply passionate about his craft, who has unintentionally been thrust into the spotlight behind the Calgary Flames bench as the interim head coach.
“I loved playing for Wardy,” continued Thompson, who is now the head coach of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. “I thought we were motivated. We played hard, but it wasn’t an old-school type of coaching. He was, really, what people are looking at nowadays with up-and-coming coaches. He was maybe a little bit ahead of his time, at that time, about 15 years ago now … I think the world of him.”
Ward’s story is colourful, not unlike others with unique outposts having shaped his experience. Moving. Times of uncertainty. Being hired. Fired. Winning. Losing.
Starting with the University of Waterloo of the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union, Ward transitioned to running the bench for the Waterloo Siskins junior B outfit, then made the jump to the Ontario Hockey League with the Niagara Falls Thunder, Kitchener Rangers, and Guelph Storm.
There was a brief foray into the ECHL, two stints in Germany sandwiched around seven years as an assistant with the Boston Bruins — which included a Stanley Cup in 2011 — several years in the American Hockey League and assistant/associate coaching gigs in New Jersey and, of course, Calgary.
Now, another unique situation presents itself. Ward has dutifully assumed the controls of a Flames organization facing turmoil in the wake of the racial allegations towards former head coach Bill Peters, and desperately needing guidance.
Flames general manager Brad Treliving called it “turbulence.”
That’s putting it mildly.
“I can never say I’ve been in this circumstance taking over a team,” Ward had said on Friday when the news became official. “But the reasoning doesn’t matter. What’s important is what you do once the moment happens and you need to step in.”
A half hour after Treliving nearly broke down in tears, explaining how difficult the situation has been on this group, Ward stepped in and switched gears.
And turned up the tunes.
At Friday’s practice, Rasmus Andersson’s music selection of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, Queen’s Radio Ga Ga, and Run DMC’s It’s Tricky had everyone smiling.
Ward explained the importance of normalcy and simplicity for his players, along with the need to insulate themselves from the outside noise.
He referred to the dressing room as “their place.” He emphasized the words “team,” “family,” and “grow.”
Ward can read a room, body language, and a situation.
During a 15-minute post-practice press conference after being officially dubbed the Flames’ interim head coach, he was empathetic and insightful. Calm, but energetic and light. Funny, but serious and purposeful.
“He’s been through it all as an assistant coach,” said winger Milan Lucic, who was with Ward during the 2011 Stanley Cup. “And he has gotten to work with some really good teams and really good coaching staffs.
“I’m excited to be here with him to see what he can do with this opportunity.”
An opportunity presented itself during the 2002-03 season with the Hamilton Bulldogs when then-head coach Claude Julien was promoted to the NHL. Ward took the team to the Calder Cup final and was named the AHL’s coach of the year.
That was the stop Sean McAslan remembers the most.
“I was a Black Ace, just bag skating for a couple of months and the next year, I went to camp and I didn’t have a very good camp,” said the former Calgary Hitmen forward (1996-2001) who now works in the oil and gas industry in Calgary. “They could have easily just sent me down, but (Ward) stuck with me because of the work I’d done.
“I had a couple of good exhibition games and on a per diem envelope, when he was handing them out, he wrote on mine: ‘Great game, Sean. Keep it up.’ He didn’t have to do anything like that, especially in the American league. You don’t have coaches holding your hands — you either make it, or you don’t.”
McAslan, like Thompson, followed Ward to Toronto and to Edmonton with the AHL Road Runners. In those days, albeit not that long ago, it was common to walk on egg shells around the main boss.
“The head coach was the tough one,” said McAslan, who played 127 games for Ward from 2002-05. “And the assistant coaches were the ones you could relate to, especially coming up through junior and the early days of pros. That’s kind of the way it was. You could relate a little more to the assistant coach.
You could be a little more buddy-buddy with them. Geoff was a really relatable guy.”
Fernando Pisani was coached by Ward through the early 2000s before becoming a full-time NHLer for six years with the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks.
Now, a development coach for the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings, Ward’s imprint was significant.
“I think guys feel comfortable approaching him and saying what’s on their mind,” Pisani said. “Right, wrong, or indifferent, he’ll give you the answer. And if you like it or you don’t, he’ll tell it to you to help you become a better player.”
Pisani says the ‘why’ is key in educating today’s generation of players and Ward has always been skilled at that.
Gaining trust, Thompson adds, has also been one of Ward’s strengths.
“When you need to coach and teach, you do those things,” Thompson said. “But if you see a person, you can go up and talk to him. Then, they know: ‘Gosh, he’s not just the coach coming at me to tell me what I’m doing wrong again.’ There’s a time and a place for that. But there’s also a time and a place to be a real person. A guy’s guy. I always thought Wardy was a guy’s guy.”
Dressed in a royal blue suit and matching tie during Saturday’s game at the Scotiabank Saddledome against the Senators, Ward shook hands with assistant coach Ryan Huska and equipment manager Mark DePasquale when the horn sounded and strode off the bench.
The Flames bench, it seemed, was looser than it had been in a long time. In his post-game press conference, he talked about the players being solution-oriented.
“I want to treat the guys like men, because they are,” Ward said. “I want them to be an important part of the process, because it’s their program, not mine.”
Many of his peers in the business believe that Ward has been ready for a head coaching position for some time. He was short-listed in Calgary in 2016, up against the eventual successful candidate, Glen Gulutzan.
The Flames have two victories with Ward at the helm. A 3-2 overtime win at Buffalo on Wednesday and Saturday’s business-like 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
According to Treliving, there’s no immediate timetable of how long Ward will stay in this role.
One would expect if there is quick evidence of buy-in and success, there would be a strong sense of permanency to the position. Ward, after all, was previously considered for the job and was poached by Treliving from the Devils ahead of the 2018-19 season to improve their power-play.
“I loved Wardo as a coach,” Devils forward Kyle Palmieri said. “He was a great guy. He was a great communicator … I think he’s going to do a great job. He’s a guy who is well-respected and knows how to motivate. I think that’s a team that’s going through a bit of a rough patch and you add this (the Peters drama) on top of it … Wardo’s a great coach and he’s been around the league forever.
“I think he’s more than qualified.”
On Saturday night, Ward used common sense to give the Flames two consecutive days off, Sunday and Monday, to regroup. Sunday was originally slated to be a practice day.
They’ve been through a lot.
So has he.
“This is difficult,” Ward had said of what he made of the entire Peters situation, and how it has impacted him given the two were peers one week ago. “I’m still reeling from it, myself. Your thoughts and your emotions are all over the place. It’s an unfortunate, unfortunate situation.”
It’s not the way he drew it up, his ascent to the NHL. There are only 31 jobs in this unforgiving business.
Ward called it a “dream realized.” From lesson planning to coaching at hockey’s highest level, it’s the very definition of a dream realized.
But as far as he’s concerned, the job is based on communication and relationships. Just like a teacher’s.
“I think it’s important you know them as people,” Ward said of building the players’ trust. “You know what they do for hobbies. What their families are like. All of those things. So, it gives me an opportunity to talk to them about other things than hockey when they get to the rink. I think it’s important that all of those things are in play. For me, then, it’s much easier to send messages to them that need to be sent. It’s easier for them to feel comfortable to come in to talk to me about things. Really, that’s what I’m all about.
“I’m all about communicating with people, trusting people, believing in people, and empowering people to come together as a group and become the best that we can be.”
WARD’S COACHING LOG
1989-92 University of Waterloo, CIAU, assistant coach
1992-93 Niagara Falls Thunder, OHL, assistant coach
1993-94 Waterloo Siskins, MWJHL, head coach
1994-98 Kitchener Rangers, OHL, head coach
1998-99 Guelph Storm, OHL, head coach
’99-2000 Arkansas RiverBlades, ECHL, head coach
2000-01 EC Bad Nauheim, Germany2, head coach
2001-02 Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL, assistant coach
2002-03 Hamilton Bulldogs, AHL, asst. coach, head coach
(Named AHL coach of the year)
2003-04 Toronto Roadrunners, AHL, head coach
2004-05 Edmonton Road Runners, AHL, head coach
2005-06 Edmonton Oilers, NHL, development coach
2006-07 Iserlohn Roosters, DEL, head coach
2007-14 Boston Bruins, NHL, assistant coach
2014-15 Adler Mannheim, DEL, head coach
(Named DEL coach of the year)
2015-18 Germany’s world championship team, asst. coach
2015-18 New Jersey Devils, NHL, assistant coach
2018-19 Calgary Flames, NHL, associate coach
2019-20 Calgary Flames, NHL, associate coach,
Interim head coach
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