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FLAMES EXTRA - GEOFF'S JOURNEY

The chance to move to Calgary after three years with the New Jersey Devils was too enticing for former Cup-winner Geoff Ward to pass up

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

The morning of June 15, 2011, and puck drop to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final at Rogers Arena in Vancouver was still hours away.

Geoff Ward felt restless.

So he decided to take pen to paper.

No envelope was required, no stamp needed.

The letter, after all, was addressed to Cody and Sawyer, Kylie and Hannah.

"Geoff came into the rink in the afternoon," recalls the head coach of the Boston Bruins at the time, Claude Julien, "and we're just chatting along. All of a sudden he tells me about this letter he'd written to his kids, to his family, that day, thinking about the game and everything it represented.

"I asked him to read it to me and he did.

"At the time I found it so appropriate and so well-written, I asked him if he'd be willing to read it aloud, share it with the team right after the meeting, in the video session.

"So he did.

"And you could tell it hit home. It took in what the game meant, the opportunity in front of us, where you came from a long time ago to where you are today. Very motivating.

"Perfect, in fact.

"I thought that was an important part of our preparation for Game 7."

That night, the Bruins steamrolled the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 to hoist the Stanley Cup aloft for the first time since 1972.

Seven years later, that letter still exists, tucked away somewhere in the Ward household.

"I was just trying to kill time before Game 7," explains the author, now in his first season as associate coach of the Flames. "You know how the day goes. I wasn't in the mood to nap. So I walked around the lobby and then took a little walk outside.

"And the letter idea came into my head. Maybe someday, I thought, my kids might get something out of this. Don't know why, but it was just fresh in my mind.

"There are some copies floating around, actually. (Goalie coach) Bob Essensa wanted one. A few other guys."

The length and breadth of Geoff Ward's coaching map is extensive, stretching from the University of Waterloo to the OHL Kitchener Rangers and Guelph Storm to three separate stints in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga - second-tier EC Bad Nauheim, Iserlohn and Mannheim - to AHL Hamilton and Edmonton, the Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils and now to Calgary.

This is someone, remember, who has been a part of championship entries in Boston and Mannheim, accepted Coach of the Year laurels in both the AHL and DEL.

"His ability to communicate, to teach, is really strong," critiques Flames boss Bill Peters. "He's got a proven track record, has won both here and in Germany.

"I think he's someone who sees the big picture, has some patience to him, is able to help veteran guys round out their games and young guys get acclimated to the NHL.

"The job he and Julie-boy did in Boston was phenomenal. They had great teams there for a long time and he was a big part of that. Every time I brought Wardo up to Claude, he was very complimentary, and that's as far back as seven years ago.

"I just thought he'd be a very valuable piece to our coaching staff."

The 56-year-old Ward says he's learned from the best: Don McKee at Waterloo; Julien, of course; John Hynes and Ray Shero the past two seasons in New Jersey; Craig Ramsay and Doug Houda, the other assistants in Boston during his tenure there; Mike Wright in the Jr. B ranks; Bob Ertl, Ward's first GM in Kitchener; Bart Crashley; the old Hockey Canada gang - Mike Babcock, Mike Pelino, Perry Pearn, George Kingston, Dave King.

"I've had a lot of tremendous mentors over my 30-plus years in coaching. Not only did I learn a lot from those guys but I'm lucky enough to be able to call them my friends.

"For sure, the different leagues, different styles, different experiences, help you as a coach. They're great developmental tools. For players, too. I'd recommend anybody to do a spell in Europe at least once in their career.

"For a coach, it expands your knowledge base, expands your perspective on certain things; allows you go see what good coaches around the world are doing with their teams.

"When I left the NHL, for example, there weren't many teams playing a 1-1-3 in the neutral zone. But it's really prevalent in Europe. When I came back a year later, a lot of teams were playing it."

The fact Ward is such a student of the game should come as no surprise, him being a former high school/grade school teacher in Ontario.

"The joy in teaching anything - hockey, science, what have you - is when you get someone who's motivated and you're able to achieve something together that's bigger than the sum of the individual parts. You have that synergy.

"That's why I became a teacher and why I became a coach."

Among career highlights, of course, 2011 ranks at the summit.

"Any Stanley Cup final run," he says, "is a grind. There's a reason guys look so happy when they finally win it. Part of it is the relief that it's actually over.

"It's so hard, physically and mentally. The travel that last series for us in 2011, coast-to-coast so many times, was murder.

"But to win …

"To see Mark Recchi win another Cup and go out on top was really cool. The look of relief on Claude's face. To see Brad Marchand start to flourish as a player. Patrice Bergeron … how much he loves the game and how much it means to him, reaching the top of his profession. He'd had a tough time, coming off that concussion.

"For every player in their own way I was extremely happy. There's just so much that goes into it. I remember Zdeno Chara looking like a shadow of himself from the third round to the end because he was playing so many minutes."

Those seven seasons in Boston weren't always nose-to-the-grindstone. There was the infamous Earpiece Affair, March 26, 2013, the Bruins at home in TD Garden to face the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ward, from the bench, reportedly flipped his earpiece up in exasperation, over the glass, which landed in a Leaf fan's plastic beer cup.

Fact, or merely urban legend?

"It was," laughs Ward now, "more a great piece of camera work than anything. I actually didn't throw my earpiece. The earpiece is attached to your collar, right?

"Tyler Seguin, directly in front of me, had a smelling salt that the camera didn't pick up. He and Sean Thornton used to toss smelling salts into the crowd. So when I brought my hand down and back up again with the earpiece, that's when Tyler threw the smelling salt, making it look like it came from my hand.

"So the guy actually got a smelling salt in his beer.

"The look on his face, checking to see where this thing in his beer had come from, was hilarious. Anyway, it got a lot of attention. My son Cody still jokes about it. He goes: 'Dad, you've spent so many years in coaching and the one thing you're going to be remembered for is throwing an earpiece in a guy's beer.'

"And I didn't even throw the earpiece!"

Of Ward's three German stops, the 2015 title-winning turn in charge of Adler Mannheim stands as a crowning achievement.

"For a few reasons,'' he reckons. "It's a hockey city, first and foremost, so you could sense a buzz on game days, like there is here in North America. The financial situation of the team was really strong.

"We set up like the NHL from Day One, in terms of our travel and practice schedule. Anything we needed, resource-wise, the owners gave us to go after a championship. The fans were fantastic.

"Making it extra special is that my oldest boy (Cody) came and lived with me there. A fantastic life experience for him. And he ended up doing the video for our team. To win a championship with your boy is pretty special."

The chance to move to Calgary following three enjoyable years in Jersey was, Ward explains, simply too enticing to pass up.

"When Ray (Shero) gave Tre permission to talk to me about the possibility of coming to Calgary, I sat down with Tre and Bill and through those conversations it became clear this was a challenge I wanted to take on.

"I had the opportunity to get my family back together - I've been apart from them for four years. They'd been based in Boston when I was in Europe and then in New Jersey.

"So that was big.

"Look, I was extremely happy in Jersey. We were moving in the right direction. I loved the staff. I loved the team. Loved everything about it.

"But that says something - says a lot, I think - for what I believe the potential of this group to be; what we have going here in Calgary at this time."

Perhaps, in the near future, on the day of another not-too-distant Stanley Cup final Game 7, Geoff Ward can rifle around at home, find that old letter and read it aloud to a new audience.

Its message, you see, never ages.

"Geoff,'' says Julien, now in a third season as coach of the Montreal Canadiens, "never feels the need for attention. He's comfortable, happy, doing things in the background, without recognition. But I'll tell you what, he does a heckuva job.

"He has a very good demeanour; players end up liking and trusting him. He's very, quietly proud of putting in the time to do his best. He doesn't want to do - pardon the expression - a half-a-- job. He always has good feedback on adjustments, whether during the game or the next day watching the video.

"I've had a lot of assistants in my career as a head coach and he's certainly one of the guys at the top of the list.

"Calgary's fortunate to have him."

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