Flames’ turnaround fuelled by loose atmosphere Geoff Ward has created

Calgary Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward at team practice after the resignation of head coach Bill Peters in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

Sliding across the ice on his knees with arms raised jubilantly skyward, Andrew Mangiapane was not doing his best impression of a young Theo Fleury.

“That was Ronaldo right there,” explained the Flames winger, quickly clarifying it was Cristiano, not Zac.

“Of course the Italian guy scored – easy. Did you see the Swede in net – Razzy? (his former junior roomie, Rasmus Andersson). I had to score on him.”

First, interim coach Geoff Ward introduced music during practice, encouraging players to get their groove on during routine warmup drills.

On Monday he punctuated practice by introducing another new ice-breaker of sorts.

“It’s the best game ever – soccer-handball,” explained Ward of a three-on-three drill involving a soccer ball and no sticks.

“The rules were simple. Balls in the air you can play handball, but you only get three seconds before you have to pass. As soon as it hits the ice you play soccer. Goalies have to play out. They were all in.”

And all over it, embracing yet another radical new approach to lightening the mood for a team that has almost miraculously shed the dark cloud that hung over it just three weeks ago with the investigation and eventual departure of coach Bill Peters.

The players all credit the looser environment with a refreshing new attitude and approach that has the team on an 8-1-1 roll, making it the hottest in the league despite Saturday’s afternoon’s 4-0 loss to Carolina.

“We all got a smile and were all excited to play,” said Mark Jankowski, beaming, in response to having the game explained on ice.

“Everyone is smiling and having a good time and the energy is up. Everyone is working hard and getting the competitive juices flowing – you want to win – so it’s fun to have something like that in practices.

“I’m trying to think, but I can’t remember the last time we did something like that not related to hockey.”

Jankowski is perhaps the poster boy for how Ward’s lighter approach has helped turn the fortunes of several players and the team as part of a 7-1 record since he took over.

“Definitely, it coincides with winning and when you are wining there’s a nice energy and a nice feel in the locker room and it’s exciting to come to the rink every day,” said Jankowski, who scored the game-winner in a 2-1 win for Team White.

“The combination of that you can feel it.”

As part of the horse play involved in the ten-minute reindeer games, David Rittich executed an NFL-style takedown on fellow netminder Cam Talbot.

“I think that’s a straight up red card – that was very flagrant,” laughed Talbot of the tackle.

“I still got an assist on the play though, so I rubbed that in his face. He put himself out of position and I made a good play.”

Talbot’s pass to Noah Hanifin as he fell set up a pass over to Michael Frolik who scored the winner.

“You have to give it to the Euro – that’s just the smart play,” laughed Talbot, well aware soccer and handball are far more popular across the pond.

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Frolik admitted he had played a bit of handball and soccer in his day, but insisted he never had a poster of Czech handball legend Filip Jicha on his wall.

He certainly knew who he was though.

In the dressing room afterwards the team took turns making fun of one another, as the holiday merriment continued.

“Mostly it’s just a good way to make sure the team is leaving the practice feeling good about themselves,” said Ward.

“You can see the guys competing. They don’t even know they’re working hard, but they’re getting some work in with their feet – that’s important in hockey too.”

The environment Ward has created is 180 degrees from the one that led to six straight losses near the end of November.

This once-fragile group now has plenty of swagger to go with a record that has them just two points out of first in the Pacific division.

Laughs and smiles rule the day at the Dome, thanks to mounting wins as well as drills like the one no one could ever remember playing before.

“We wanted to do keep it a little lighter at the beginning (of his coaching tenure) so guys started feeling good and having fun around here,” said Ward, whose club hosts Pittsburgh Tuesday.

“Right now we just feel like if you’re having fun coming to the rink it makes it easier to work. In order for anything to happen on the ice you have to work. We felt it was a necessary precedent in order to establish our work ethic. What will happen now is we’re encouraging them to take charge of that so it will take on a different look.”
Zac Rinaldo was jacked up about the possibilities.

“Baseball… with sticks,” he smiled, eyes lighting up.

“Use a tennis or soccer ball and make up bases on your own. Or maybe Red Rover. I asked Wardo if soccer could have been contact – that would have been ten times more fun.”

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