On the long road that takes a coach from the very beginning to the cusp of making the NHL, Troy Ward picked up a few life lessons.
Some were difficult.
After carting his family from small-town Wisconsin to Denver, Dubuque, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Trenton, N.J., over a decade of climbing the coaching ladder, his journey to hockey’s top level hit a detour.
“At the end of that year, I’d been married for 11 years and my wife asked me for a divorce,” Ward said. “I basically spent the next couple of years trying to save my marriage.”
That’s when the reigning ECHL coach of the year left a three-year contract on the table and abandoned the profession altogether. Ten years later, Ward is the head coach of the Abbotsford Heat, the minor-league affiliate of the Calgary Flames and a team that could go deep in this year’s AHL playoffs.
Even though this is only Ward’s first full season as a head coach in a decade, many around the organization believe he is the front-runner to coach the Flames next season. How a virtual unknown could beat out the field and secure a high-profile NHL job is a story of perseverance and dedication, because beyond the Heat’s 42-26-8 record and strong showing in the postseason, Ward’s work ethic and personality have won the hearts of the Flames’ brass.
He is at the rink most days by 4 a.m. – five hours before players arrive – and has a unique approach to getting to know his team, inside and out.
“Sometimes you walk in in the morning and you can tell he’s got a caffeine buzz going, his hair’s all messy, he hasn’t showered and he was awake at the rink all night,” defenceman Chris Breen said. “So he’s dedicated.”
“It’s usually a 14, 15-hour day, on average,” Ward said, noting that it helps his family is more than 3,000 kilometres away in Cross Plains, Wis.
Dedication has never been a problem for Ward. A Minnesota native, the highest level of hockey he played was Division III college in Eau Claire, Wis., where he went on to coach in his early 20s. That put him on the path to six states in six different leagues in the next decade, a ride that culminated with three years in “the bigs” as an assistant under Pittsburgh Penguins coach Kevin Constantine.
When Constantine was fired in 1999, however, Ward was left heading for yet another minor hockey destination that summer – only this time without his family.
Even after walking away from coaching, his marriage didn’t last, which began a custody battle for his two sons that kept him in Wisconsin for several years. Ward lost that fight, but he now sees it as a turning point.
“Those things that happen to you in life, they make you a better man,” Ward said as his team prepared to face the Toronto Marlies in Game 2 of their second-round series on Thursday. “They make you a better hockey coach.”
“He wants you to become a better person,” defenceman J.P. Testwuide said. “Just the way he cares about each individual player, it takes a lot of time for him I’m sure but it pays benefits. I don’t think it’s that common.
“I’m thankful that I got him early in my career so I can have him as a mentor. He’s a born teacher. That’s what he loves to do.”
The Flames like Ward’s ability to work with difficult players and in difficult circumstances. Even as injuries hit Calgary and decimated both teams’ rosters during the year, the Heat hung in and continued to win enough games to finish near the top of the AHL standings.
Abbotsford was also hot entering the playoffs. Tuesday’s 3-1 win in Game 1 against the Marlies was the Heat’s 11th in a row, which could be the start of a long postseason run.
It’s also worth noting that Ward’s unconventional background is unlikely to deter the Flames from taking a chance on him, as Flames GM Jay Feaster and assistant GM John Weisbrod both took the road less travelled through the lower minor leagues.
“We oftentimes will laugh about our paths,” Ward said, “and how we got to be together as a group.”
There’s also a sense in the organization after three years of missing the playoffs with Brent Sutter behind the bench that they want a new face and new ideas rather than bringing in a veteran retread, and Ward certainly qualifies there.
Even if his 50th birthday is a few weeks around the corner.
“That’s always been my goal,” Ward said of being a head coach in the NHL. “If that happens someday, certainly I’m going to enjoy the challenge. But I’m also realistic. I know those positions are hard to come by.”