Flames coach Geoff Ward seeking player empowerment with new approach

Calgary Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

Representative of the new coaching approach that’s slowly been taking over the game, one of Geoff Ward’s first acts as interim coach of the Calgary Flames revolves around empowering the players.

The former high-school teacher met with the team’s leadership group before Tuesday’s practice to get their feedback before starting a series of one-on-ones with every player.

He wants their thoughts on everything from line combinations to upcoming days off, while also getting to know them better as people.

“We’ll talk to them about everything – I think it’s important they know the direction we’re potentially moving in and I think it’s important they know the reasons why we may be moving in that direction,” said Ward, an assistant throughout his 12-year NHL career, who was thrust into the Flames top coaching job Friday following the departure of Bill Peters.

“As a staff we’re as much accountable to them as they are to us. I wanted feedback from them on where they felt we were at this point in time. I wanted feedback from them on our upcoming schedule. We’re obviously going to try to empower them as much as we can to make decisions in areas of the program where they can, so they can take more ownership in it. I also wanted them to know what they can expect going forward from me and the staff.”

It’s a fascinating departure from the old-school coaching mentality in the NHL that the coach knows best and that when he says jump, the players say, “how high?”

Fact is, today’s players now have a different question: “why should I jump?”

Ward wants open lines of communication to help answer that question, as players in today’s multi-billion dollar hockey business, quite frankly, deserve to know.

It’s a particularly interesting approach given Glen Gulutzan was let go in 2018 for being too much of a players’ coach – someone the players were ultimately seen as taking advantage of.

Prior to that, Bob Hartley was seen as being too hard and was despised in the room.

Peters was brought in to bring increased accountability with a little more tough love.

Assistant coaches have always had the luxury of playing good cop to the boss-man’s bad cop, so it will be interesting to see how Ward’s approach works long-term. He’s been a head coach in the OHL, ECHL, the German League and the AHL (where he was coach of the year after taking over mid-season), so he knows a thing or two about running the show.

Flames GM Brad Treliving certainly thought enough of him to make him a finalist for the job handed to Gulutzan in 2016, before hiring Ward last year to be the associate coach.

While in Calgary, he’s been popular with the players, which may have something to do with their 2-0 start with him behind the bench.

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“It all comes down to your style – as soon as you’re not true to your style the players see right through it,” said the 57-year-old Waterloo, Ont., native who has made coaching stops in New Jersey and Boston, including a Cup-winning stint in Boston.

“I’ve always approached it that I want the feedback from the players and I want them to be involved because at the end of the day it’s their program. If you want to fully have people realize their potential I think it’s way easier if they feel like they have ownership in it and are an important part of it. That’s always been a strategy I’ve used and it fits into my personality.”

Sure sounds like the kind of boss you’d like to work for, doesn’t it?

His goal over the next handful of days while shooting the breeze with every player alone, is to learn more about their hobbies, their passions, their families, their goals and what they see their role being on the team.

He believes the relationship-building opens the door for the harder conversations sure to come.

“It makes it easier if they can relate to you and we have some things in common,” said Ward. “It may be we’re talking about boats or horses, but it’s a way the trust level and conversation is easier. So then when we need to talk about the reality of things, the give and take is easier and it’s a lot more in depth.

Ward saw the morning meeting with the captains as starting a new chapter for a team coming off a tumultuous week capped by two days off.

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“We needed to get some things straightened out before we hit the ice so, when we came in today the reset was final for us,” said Ward, whose team takes a four-game point streak into Thursday’s home game against Buffalo. “Now it’s a case where we’re focused on hockey and moving ahead.”

One of the two lads who most need a restart of sorts is Johnny Gaudreau, whose five-goal start has been well-documented as abysmal.

It may be part of why he was handed DJ duties Tuesday, sparking plenty of debate as Whitney Houston and Kenny Chesney highlighted his playlist aired during practice – an acoustic addition to skates Ward added last week when Rasmus Andersson’s iTunes helped lighten the mood.

“I just made myself $50 – I thought that was going to be the first question,” laughed Ward, whose philosophy is already paying off in unexpected ways. “That was Johnny today – guys are saying he has a little bit of an edge over Razzy, but we’ll see.”

Expect plenty of feedback to follow – exactly what Ward is looking for.

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