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GEOFF'S JOURNEY

Interim head coach Geoff Ward has had a long, but highly rewarding path to get to where he is

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

This updated feature on Flames interim coach Geoff Ward originally ran on Flames.com last season. It's a glimpse into the man behind the bench, and what drives him.


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.

Eight 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, who has assumed the rudder of the Flames following the resignation of Bill Peters. "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 then 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.

The 56-year-old Ward says he's learned from the best over his career.

 

 

"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.'

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 …

"For every player in their own way I was extremely happy. There's just so much that goes into it.

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.

"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

Now, a season and 28 games into his Flames' run, he's finally getting the chance to run the show at the NHL level.

And 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.

It's message, you see, never ages.

"Geoff,'' says Julien, now in a fourth 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.

"Calgary's fortunate to have him."

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