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Ward brings stability, winning back to Flames with communication

New coach has Calgary in playoff contention following Peters' resignation

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

CALGARY -- Geoff Ward recognized chaos and heard the noise around the struggling Calgary Flames when he was named coach on Nov. 29, and he knew what needed to be done. 

He wanted to insulate the locker room from the turmoil and tension that accompanied the resignation of coach Bill Peters, so he made sure the players knew communication was a priority and that they'd be empowered to help the team break out of its early-season rut.

"You have to be true to your style," Ward said. "That's the way I'm comfortable coaching. I want the player to be an active participant in it because I feel if a player is actively involved in what's going on on a daily basis, they're more committed and more accountable."

It was not an easy transition for the Flames. Peters, in his second season as coach, resigned on Nov. 29, four days after a former player of his in AHL accused him on Twitter of using a racial epithet 10 years ago. 

Ward coached one game before Peters resigned -- a 3-2 overtime win against the Buffalo Sabres -- on Nov. 27 with Peters away from the team. The Flames then won next six after Ward was named coach. 

After finishing first in the Western Conference with 107 points last season, then losing to the Colorado Avalanche in six games in the Western Conference First Round, Calgary had lost six straight games (0-5-1) and was 10-12-3 on Nov. 21.

The Flames are 7-2-1 under Ward and have moved into the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference heading into their game against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVAS, FS-SW). 

Coaches are in charge but Ward, who was hired by the Flames as associate coach May 30, 2018, said he believes player leadership in all situations is essential.

"We've stressed from Day One that it's their program, they've got to take ownership of it," Ward said. "We're just here to help steer the ship the way they want it to go and try to make everybody on the ship realize their potential. We feel that's an energy we can take advantage of."

Ward, who was only named coach for the rest of this season, said he's not troubled in the least by his status.

"Not at all uncomfortable," he said. "It's their program. I'm just here to do my job on a daily basis, and at the end of the day, we'll see where it leads. I'm not thinking about anything else but the team. Maybe by the All-Star break I'll be able to sit back and reflect on some things but right now, we're in the middle of the grind and you have to make sure you keep coming in and grinding."

Prior to his promotion from associate in Calgary, the 57-year-old was an assistant and coach of the Edmonton Oilers' American Hockey League affiliate for four seasons from 2001-05, as an assistant under coach Claude Julien with the Boston Bruins for seven seasons from 2007-14 and as an assistant to coach John Hynes with the New Jersey Devils for three seasons from 2015-18.

Ward said that a season in Germany, when he coached Iserlohn of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga in 2006-07, was instrumental in his own growth, helping him realize that his core principles of communication and empowerment were the way of the future.

"I've been fortunate, have been around a lot of good coaches and have been able to coach against a lot of good coaches so I can pick and choose what I like," Ward said. "And I read a lot, so I get a lot of good ideas out of what I read, both from coaches' books about players, business books, biographies.

"When I went to Europe, to Germany, I felt like it was a real opportunity for me to try some of this stuff. It was a shorter schedule, away from the grind of the NHL and I said, 'You know what, there are some things I've always wondered about,' and treated it as a sort of experimental year. It really confirmed some of the thoughts I had about coaching, and my philosophy started to evolve a little bit. I'm really comfortable moving forward now with the way that we are because some of that stuff works."

Ward said the concept of trust was a great example that younger coaches may be reluctant to offer enough of it to really make things work. 

"I thought the most important thing was to treat them like men and really give them an opportunity to have a say in everything we do," he said about Iserlohn. "There were a few times I thought maybe I should pull that back, but we had such a good group of leaders on that team that I found when I gave them that trust, they gave it back to me five-fold. So that was definitely worth it."

Captain Mark Giordano said he's noticed a better cohesion in the locker room in the past few weeks and credited Ward's empowerment philosophy for the improvement.

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"We've had a bunch of meetings with the leadership group and from all aspects, things off the ice too," Giordano said. "He's asked us what we think, and he gives his opinion and then we give our opinion and then we make a choice. He's got that great demeanor and he's really easy to approach and talk to."

The effect can also be seen at recent Flames practices. Music has been introduced at the start of some practices to help the players feel more relaxed and on Monday of this week Ward made a game of soccer/handball the final exercise of an 80-minute practice.

Going cross-ice and with no sticks, players had to kick the ball while it was on the ice but while in the air, it could be carried but with a three-second passing rule.

"You know what, you get through nine or 10 serious drills where you battle and get your work done and then at the end, you have a little bit of fun," Giordano said. "I think guys really appreciate that. It takes you back to when you were a kid and all you wanted to do at the end of a practice was scrimmage, right? I think he gets that and it brings that back a little for us."

General manager Brad Treliving said Ward's readiness made him the easy choice to take over.

"We went through the situation that had a lot of chaos going on, so how do you get stability?" Treliving said. "Geoff's familiar with the group so there's no learning curve. And not only did he know our group, he's very well thought of by our group. I just thought he's the right selection.

"I interviewed Geoff a few years ago when we were looking for a coach and know he's got lots of experience in the NHL. So I felt really comfortable with Geoff ... and I really do think he's ready for this. He's ready to be, in my mind, a head coach in the NHL, so it was a natural fit for us."

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