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'I'M ECSTATIC'

Huska's hard work with AHL affiliate earns him opportunity to coach with the big club

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Hey, everybody's got to start somewhere, right?

"The first real memory I have of coaching,'' Ryan Huska is reminiscing, with self-deprecatory relish, "is when I took the part-time job with the Kelowna Rockets.

"Marc Habscheid was the coach there at the time.

"That first day, he asked me to pick out a drill and run it. Well, the drill went horribly wrong. Guys were going in the wrong direction. 

"It was just … chaos.

"I remember our top scorer at the time, Jesse Schultz, he'd score 50 that year and go on to be signed by the Vancouver Canucks, got hit accidentally during the drill because of all the confusion.

"I'm standing there thinking: 'What did I get myself into?'

"And Mark was either sitting back either laughing or thinking: 'What did I get myself into?'

"I'm not sure which."

Sixteen years later, the drills down to a more exact science, Huska has at last elevated to the top flight, the second-highest rung in the profession.

The solid company man has been rewarded for his developmental acumen and teaching skills by being elevated to assistant coach of the Flames, his first NHL post, joining New Jersey Devils' assistant Geoff Ward - will serve as associate coach - on the staff of incoming boss Bill Peters.

No one deserves the opportunity more.

"I'm ecstatic,'' says Huska. "Very honoured to be given this opportunity by Brad (GM Treliving) and Bill.

"Just like players at our level, we all try to work and get ourselves up to the next level.

"And that level is the NHL."

Originally signing on with the Flames' organization to oversee the top farm club while it was based in Adirondack, N.Y., he shifted with it to Stockton, Calif., and began setting about standards, criteria.

"In the beginning,'' Huska is quick to point out, "why I took the job was the way I'd been treated through the whole process by Brad Treliving and Brad Pascall.

"Everyone in the organization above you gave you the belief you were valued. When you get a chance to work with people who are loyal, who trust you, I think it makes it easier to come to work every day and do your best - not just yourself but for them.

"Good organizations do that. You want to have a culture where people feel they can contribute on any given day. When that starts at the top, it filters though the organization."

Huska is, of course, a significant part of the reason a number of current Flames - Mark Jankowski, Brett Kulak, Garnet Hathaway, Jon Gillies - and others knocking vigorously on the door for full-time employment - Rasmus Andersson, Spencer Foo, Andrew Mangiapane, David Riittich - have reached the upper echelon.

And today, in a sense, they've returned the favour.

"That's been one of the coolest parts of coaching down here for me: Seeing those guys get their opportunities up top, being told for the first time they're being called up,'' says Huska. "For me, those were some of the best days down here - getting the chance to maybe watch that first game live and see that first shift. Those are really neat moments for us because in the American you spend a lot of time with these young guys.

"You're genuinely excited for them. You're proud.

"You've had a chance to see their growth and development.

"Now, I have the opportunity to help them take another step, help them maybe become a little bit more than they were before or are now."

In joining Peters, fellow newbie Ward, Martin Gelinas, goaltending guru Jordan Sigalet and master of the video, Jamie (Chips) Pringle, the emphasis shifts for Huska.

"There's a fine line in the American league between development and winning. One of the things Brad told me when I interviewed for the job down here was: 'The first priority is making guys ready to play in Calgary.'

"Now, for me, it flips. Now, results are the most important thing. But in order to get those results you're after you have to keep developing these players.

"Here, we'd put players in positions to help them grow. You'd put them in situations that maybe they'd mistakes in, because that's how you learn, how you get better. In Calgary, we have to make sure we're winning games while helping them improve. So the focus changes.

"But you can't turn it off, the winning desire. Every time you stand behind a bench - whatever league you're in, whatever level you're at - your goal is win a hockey game."

First impressions of Peters, his new boss?

"A very direct person. Very intelligent. A man who knows what he's looking for. Organized. Disciplined. Detailed.

"I'm really looking forward to getting the opportunity to work for him and learning along the way."

A full 16 years after the first-drill chaos in Kelowna, and four years into his tenure in this organization, Ryan Huska makes the step he's watched so many take in Stockton.

His dream has been no different than theirs.

"Once you get involved in coaching, and you can see yourself making a career at it, you do start that dream push again," he confesses. "It wasn't going to happen for me as a player, and I came to grips with that.

"So you look for other avenues.

"You hope that if you do put in the time as a coach, the way the players do, someday you'll get that chance.

"Someday you'll be in the NHL."

Someday, turns out, is this day.

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