Q&A: Huska on keeping Flames in the present, team captaincy and helping Huberdeau

Ryan Huska was unveiled as the new head coach of the Calgary Flames on June 12, 20232. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

PENTICTON, B.C. – Calgary Flames coach Ryan Huska has one overarching message for his team as it enters training camp.

“Don’t look back,” said a smiling Huska, brought in to replace the fired Darryl Sutter and end the dressing room drama that helped make last season such a disaster.

“(It’s) no good looking back at what happened before, or by looking ahead at what might potentially happen down the road.”

The focus is now, and that means every player in camp has a fresh slate with a new coach, new GM and a chance to rebound from last season’s disappointment.

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We had a chance to sit rinkside with the coach at the South Okanagan Events Centre, where he was happy to discuss everything from dressing room renovations, the captaincy, contract distractions and his goaltending plan, to how he’ll help Jonathan Huberdeau, Oliver Kylington and the raft of youngsters expected to crack the lineup:

Sportsnet: I understand you’ve made significant changes to the dressing room. What was the mindset behind those?

Ryan Huska: Yeah, we’re leaving things behind, and this is what’s in front of us today. 

You’ll see, there’s something that’s new there – quite a difference. We’re still kind of in the construction phase of it, as there’s a certain phase that’s going to be finished when we’re on our first long road trip. 

It’s going to be a little different, with subtle changes everywhere, the room, the kitchen, the weight room …

It looks awesome, they’ve done a really good job. 

SN: Is your choice for captain an obvious one?

RH: I don’t necessarily think we have an obvious one.

I don’t necessarily think they have to be that loud voice. 

I had conversations about leadership with several of our players over the course of the summer, and a comment from Zdeno Chara made about his leadership in Boston was interesting. He said his job wasn’t all that hard because of all the guys that they had, or he had around. I feel like that’s maybe more so what our group has.

It’s not the one guy that is going to “Mark Messier” someone and say, “This is what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.” I think it’s going to be more of a collective thing with our group. There’s going to be someone that’s going to wear that “C” on the chest, but he’s not going to be able to do it on his own.

SN: Can you talk about the importance of adding youthful exuberance to the team?

RH: These young guys have a role that they have to play. There’s identity that we need them to bring to the lineup and there’s going to be a number of them, whether it’s Pelletier, Walker Duehr, Rosie (Adam Ruzicka), Dube or you can go even further with Mang (Andrew Mangiapane).

You want those guys to know every time they’re on the ice they have a part to play in bringing energy to our team. And if it’s not there, if they can’t fulfill that role, that next person is going to get the opportunity to do that. 

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I think when you have that, guys know, “I have to be there all the time or I’m going to miss out maybe on the next game.”

I think that’s one of the more powerful things that a coach has at his disposal. I think that helps get you away from those February games, when guys are tired, it’s getting into dog days, then all of a sudden you have someone coming in with piss and vinegar and ready to go. It kind of energizes the people around them.

SN: Who do you plan to have as Jonathan Huberdeau’s centre to get him back on track?

RH: We have a sense of where we’d like to see him, but he’s going to be with different people during the exhibition season, for sure.

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When you’re looking for that chemistry early on, it’s a little bit on both parties. He’s got to have a huge impact on his centre as well. It kind of goes both ways. 

I have a feeling it’s going to work a certain way. And, yeah, hopefully, we’re right with what we’re thinking.

SN: How can you help him be better?

RH: He is one of the better players in the NHL and everybody has a tough year from time to time. 

For him, it’s making sure he’s coming back bringing the best version of himself, and that’s how we’ll push him every day. I really feel like you’re gonna see a different player this year. He’s hungry. He’s motivated. We’ve talked a lot about that transition that he had last year and the snowball effect on how his season went.

That’s in the past. I’m going to have challenges for him and then I’m going to ask for his help on certain things, like bringing certain players along, because he has a lot of leadership characteristics and qualities. With that, I think he’s going to feel like he has a big piece of this pie.

SN: How do you prevent the storylines about pending UFAs from being a distraction?

RH: The reality of it is they have one year left on their contracts, and when you know the character of those people, you know there’ll be no difference in the way they approach the game and their teammates.

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It’s one thing if they didn’t have deals or someone is holding out, but I don’t foresee it being a distraction. 

They’re happy to be here for now, for sure. 

SN: Do you have a plan mapped out in terms of how you’ll employ your two NHL goalies and Dustin Wolf, or is it a plan that’s subject almost entirely on the competition?

RH: I think it changes, based on the competition.

I have an idea as to how many games I’d like to see Marky (Jacob Markstrom) play, and based on how he and the other guys are playing, you kind of go from there.

SN: How can you help Oliver Kylington in his return to the team?

RH: I think with his situation, it’s making sure that he knows that we’re all there for him. That’s the biggest thing. 

He is one of us and he’s gone through a tough time, and all of his teammates and all of the coaches and all of our staff are with him. 

Once he understands that, I think we’ll see the old Oliver back.

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