Hockey is just hockey and the players really all want the same thing. No matter what level you’re at they’re all proud guys and they want more ice time so they look to do things the right way. We have a great group in that regard. - Ryan Huska
GLENS FALLS, NY -- Hockey was never a common denominator for Adirondack Flames coach Ryan Huska and his late father, Pete, a police officer.
His father didn’t play the game, so Huska pretty much learned the sport on his own while growing up in Western Canada.
But as time passed, Huska came to realize a similarity that linked both their careers, a lesson that’s proved invaluable in his first year as an AHL head coach.
“After the fact, when he retired, I realized he had a pretty cool job,” Huska said. “The police force is a lot like a sports team where they kind of have each other’s back.”
That’s the atmosphere he’s created at Adirondack, his first year at the AHL level, which in no small way is responsible for the Flames’ impressive play to date. Fourth overall in the Western Conference, they bring a 22-15-2-1 record into Saturday night’s home contest against the Milwaukee Admirals (20-12-2-3), which are just two points behind in the standings.
At the season’s start, Huska’s top priority and toughest challenge was creating a cohesive unit -- players, coaches, off-ice personnel -- out of people who were all new to Adirondack, and each other.
“The biggest thing was getting everyone together on the same page,” he said. “It takes a little while for people to get used to what’s expected of them and bringing the right work attitude to the rink every day. Players were trying to get used to us and what we expected out of them and vice versa. Once we got over that hump I think it’s been a fairly smooth transition.”
“Hockey is just hockey and the players really all want the same thing,” Huska said. “No matter what level you’re at they’re all proud guys and they want more ice time so they look to do things the right way. We have a great group in that regard.”
After passing one major test, building team unity, a steady stream of roster moves has been another big challenge for Huska.
“Every day there’s something different with our lineup, whether someone’s called up, sent down or injured, so we’re putting people in different positions they might not be used to, but still expecting them contribute and work the way this organization expects them to work.”
The past 10 days alone has seen more than a half-dozen changes including All-Star goalie Joni Ortio’s recall to Calgary, and a trade that brought All-Star centerman Drew Shore (30 points) to the Flames, in exchange for forward Corban Knight, only to see Shore called up to the NHL a few days later.
Huska’s main responsibility is getting players at Adirondack to develop the same style of play as Calgary, so they can fit right in when moving up the ladder.
“From day one we’ve had great communication with Calgary,” he said. “We talk about our lineup daily as to who we’re thinking of putting in. They give us their thoughts on it and then we work together to come to a consensus. They give us a lot of rope to do what we’d like to do with the lineup, and at the same time I think we’ve done a good job working with them to make sure we’re putting their prospects in a position where they’re getting the ice time they need to improve.”
There’s a delicate balance between giving players a chance to experience growing pains, and wanting to put the best team possible on the ice.
“Sometimes an older defenceman like (Adirondack team captain) Nolan Yonkman may be out of the lineup because we need to see younger guys in certain situations,” Huska said. “This level is becoming more and more of a development league. Having said that, I don’t think you can develop players properly without winning. That’s one of the things we’re trying to establish here, that no matter who is in our lineup our expectation is to win – young, old, it doesn’t matter. That’s what we expect out of our players and I think for the most part, since the beginning of the year, our group has had a good understanding of that expectation.”
Huska constantly reminds players that a game is 60 minutes long, not 58 or 59, and that every shift counts right up until the final horn sounds. That mindset has resulted in more than one dramatic third-period comeback during the season’s first half, as the Flames simply refused to quit.
After a five-year pro playing career (1995-2000), including a one-game stint with the Chicago Blackhawks, Huska left hockey to complete his studies for a degree in business administration. Soon, however, the lure of the game began drawing him back and he took a junior hockey assistant coach’s position with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL.
“I think it’s in your blood,” he said. “Once you’ve been around it for long as most hockey players or coaches have, it’s hard to step away from it.”
In 2007, he took over as head coach, the first of seven straight years at the helm, which included the 2008-09 league championship, before coming to Adirondack last summer. Like most kids from Western Canada, Huska -- a Cranbrook, B.C. native -- grew up idolizing Wayne Gretrzky during his years on the Edmonton Oilers.
“As I got a little older Steve Yzerman was my favorite player so I became a Detroit Red Wings fan along the way,” he said.
However, his true hockey heroes are the coaches that have encouraged and mentored him along the way such as veteran WHL and former Calgary Flames (2000-01) head coach Don Hay.
“He’s been around a long time and is a great source of information,” Huska said. “Guys that I reach out to when I’m stuck on something are Ken Hitchcock, Barry Trotz and Tom Renney (also from Cranbrook) who’s now in charge of Hockey Canada. They’re great people and they’re always there to help. When you’re trying to find your way, sometimes their suggestions can help you get over the humps. You have to utilize the people around you because they have the experience that you eventually want to have as a coach, too.”
Heading into the season’s second half, there’s one experience Huska can’t wait for -- taking Adirondack deep into the Calder Cup playoffs. Everything he’s done in hockey so far has prepared both he and the Flames for that possibility.
That’s why Huska can say, “I’m in a position I love and I enjoy coming to work every day.”