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The Heat bench boss' experience as a player has aided him throughout his coaching career

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

The uncertainty. The frustration. The waiting. The wishing.

 And, yes, for a fleeting moment, at any rate, the joy.

Ryan Huska understands it all. He's lived it all.

Scroll back to Jan. 5th, 1998. The United Centre on Chicago's south side.

After three years of faithful toil in Indianapolis, a 22-year-old centreman's first big-league break.

His only big-league break.

"I was hoping,'' muses the Stockton Heat's recently re-signed head coach, "it was going to be one of those depending-on-how-you-do-it-could-be-a-week-or-two things because Brent Sutter had a groin injury that was not responding.

"But of course, the way the Sutters are, he could barely skate around the ice the day after the one game I did play, walked back into the room and said: 'I'm good.'

"Back to Indianapolis."

Stats show the 6-2, 194-pound, left-handed-shooting centreman - the Hawks' third-round selection in the '93 entry draft - logging eight shifts and 5:55.

That'd be No. 56 in your program. But don't dare blink, or you'll miss him.

The opposition? In a nice twist of fate, his current employer - the Calgary Flames.

Nearly two decades later, Huska describes the time-capsule one-off, which ended a 1-1 tie, as "an out-of-body experience." He recalls being so keyed up that he left himself open to a massive hit from Flames' defenceman Jamie Allison early on.

"Playing against Jarome Iginla, a teammate of mine (in Kamloops), was pretty cool.

"The first two periods I took a few face-offs in different zones, which I was pretty excited about. My linemates were Jim Cummins, who's now a scout for the Flames, and Kevin Miller.

"But once we got into the third period …

"You know, I was just very appreciative that Bob Murray, the GM of the Blackhawks at the time, gave me the chance to have that one game.

"I'd been the organization quite a while, the captain of the team in Indianapolis. And Bob Murray'd been around the whole time. I really believe that game was kind of a 'Thank you for what you've done for our group in the IHL.'

"At times you wonder: 'Gee, if I could've had one or two more games, maybe I could've done a bit more, stayed a bit longer …' but at the end of the day I was pretty thankful to have had that one game."

What a 309-to-1/NHL-to minor-league pro playing career has done is offer Huska a unique perspective into the hearts and minds of those he now grooms - the Mark Jankowskis and Ryan Lombergs and Ramus Anderssons - to maybe propel a first NHL start into 100, then, hopefully, 1,000.

That's his job, and his reward.

"Absolutely, I feel that connection. When you're young, one of the hardest things - and I found this even after the year I stopped playing - is seeing some of the names of some of the transactions who are being called up. When you believe you're in that category, too, and never got the same opportunity they did, it's hard to wrap your head around.

"Being a career minor leaguer, I totally understand what these guys feel in certain situations, the challenges they face, even when teammates get the call. It's a real interesting dynamic in the AHL. These guys are best of friends but at the same time competing for jobs at the next level. We all want to achieve our dreams.

"So as much as you're happy for a teammate, you're also thinking: 'I've got find a way to do something a little bit better so I can be that guy next time.'

"When you step back and you're out of it, you can maybe realize you weren't quite good enough to be that player pushing for that job.

"But when you're caught up in it, no player sees things that way. And rightfully so. They need that to drive them forward."

Along, naturally, with capable mentoring.

"Our top priority here is development. I'm not saying we don't have to win games but there's a little more rope, a little more leeway, when we get into some tougher stretches if the players are showing improvement."

The Heat embark on their third season in California riding a crest of momentum. A monumental late-season push staked them to a playoff spot before extending the Pacific Division-winning San Jose Barracuda to the limit, five games.

"I think we made a dent into building, into developing, a bit of a culture,'' says Huska. "Now we're not just a team that competes. We expect more."

So re-upping with the Flames' organization was welcomed by both parties.

"I'm very fortunate to work with a great group of people who make our staff here feel we contribute to the success up top.

"Brad Pascall, who I talk to daily, has been tremendous. And they trust you. When you're an employee, in any job, that's what you want.

"Players would say the same.

"If you feel valued, if you feel you matter, you'll work harder.

"That's the culture created by Brad Treliving."

Not that the sparkle of the NHL doesn't at times bewitch, beguile, beckon.

No different than years ago at the United Center for a 22-year-old, 6-2, 194-pound, left-handed-shooting pivot aiming to break into the big-leagues.

"Just like players here, it's our goal at some point to hopefully get a chance to work in the NHL, whether that be as an assistant or a head coach.

"I think every year you're able to be a head coach at this level, you learn so much more. Not only about yourself but about the game.

"So I don't necessarily think there's this huge rush. I love where I am, what I'm doing and who I'm doing it for.

"But at some point, I'd like that chance."

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