"You're the hardest team we've played all year," Dallas Eakins, the coach of the AHL's Toronto Marlies, told Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward as the two men shook hands.
The Marlies had just scored the overtime winner in Game 5 of the second round playoff series between the two clubs, eliminating the Heat, 4-1. It was a disappointing end to what was, arguably, the best season in the Heat's 3-year history.
The Heat are the AHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames, who boast a prospect pool that was ranked 26th in the NHL by Hockey's Future just two days ago. But, while they may not be stacked with prospects, as long as Ward is behind the bench, they'll be well-coached.
The problem is, he may not be behind the bench for long. Eakins wasn't the only hockey mind to recognize how hard the Heat play; there are strong rumblings that Ward has done enough to make himself not just a candidate in the Calgary Flames' search for a new head coach, but the only publicly acknowledged candidate thus far.
There's no question Ward made the most of what he had in Abbotsford. Despite having an admittedly un-punchy team and consistently losing important contributors such as Paul Byron and Clay Wilson to the big club, Ward kept his team on track for a franchise-best, 42-win season. That's even more impressive when you consider that Ward bested Jim Playfair's 39 wins in 2009-10 despite the AHL shortening its schedule from 80 games to 76 this year.
He did great work with the prospects, graduating both Lance Bouma and T.J. Brodie, and instilling serious work ethic into Ryan Howse and physicality into Greg Nemisz, qualities both were said to lack.
But the strongest testament to Ward's skills as a coach is the growth he was able to tease out of problematic veteran players that were brought into his room, such as Krys Kolanos and famous 2003 first-round draft bust Hugh Jessiman. Both had career years under Ward.
The best example of Ward's gifts is the job he did with Akim Aliu. The 23-year-old is 6'3", 225 lbs, highly-skilled, and can skate like the wind. There's really no reason he shouldn't be in the NHL. But his first taste of the bigs only came this season, after spending most of the year rehabilitating his game in Abbotsford.
Aliu was drafted 56th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007, but fell down the depth chart, and was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers alongside Dustin Byfuglien in 2010. In the Thrashers' system, he shuttled up and down between the AHL and the ECHL, and when the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, he was told by the new Jets' management that he wasn't in their plans.
But the Heat needed size and scoring punch, so Jay Feaster decided to give Aliu a shot. The team acquired him on loan just after Christmas.
Aliu's problems were on and off the ice. On the ice, he could lack focus. One thing that stood out was his tendency to turn the wrong way while his team was pressuring in the offensive zone. The puck would come up the boards on his side and he'd be facing away from it. Either he'd miss it, or he'd have his chest exposed to the defender, who would staple him to the wall and take the puck away.
Off the ice, the knock was that he lacked maturity. In junior, Aliu was involved in the occasional tussle in practice -- he famously got into a fight with Windsor Spitfires' teammate Steve Downie in 2006 -- and in 2010, he broke his hand in a barfight in Toronto.
But Ward's focus on process and personal improvement were exactly what Aliu needed.
"Coach Ward, he stresses process," said blueliner J.P. Testwuide. "It's not about the outcomes. If you focus on the moment and you focus on now, you can't dictate the results. If you're getting better as a person, if you're getting better as a player, if you're getting better as a team, that's what's most important."
According to Testwuide, Ward works tirelessly to ensure this improvement happens from player to player. "Just the way he cares about each individual player, it takes a lot of time for him I'm sure but it pays benefits," he gushed to the Globe & Mail. "I don't think it's that common."
With his size and skating ability, Ward told Aliu, there was simply no reason he couldn't be a checker at the very least in the bigs. He had to stop thinking about his stats and start thinking about process. The team worked on Aliu's positioning in all three zones and his physical game.
Aliu bought in, and he was rewarded for his new work ethic. In January, the team quietly acquired his rights from Winnipeg, and in April of 2012, he was called up to the Flames.
"Plain and simple, [Ward] resurrected my career," Aliu told the Calgary Sun. "Kind of down and out earlier this year and he gave me an opportunity, and this organization gave me an opportunity."
Aliu played with a renewed energy in his 2-game stint with the Flames, scoring twice and adding a helper. Suddenly, he looks like he should be in the NHL, and his turnaround is a big reason that Ward does too.
For Flames fans wondering what sort of coach Ward is, he's a new-school guy with a focus on hard work and defensive posture that counts scoring chances and tracks possession.
His team concept is infectious. "This is the closest team I've ever had," said Heat defender Clay Wilson after the team's final game.
Part of it is accountability. Ward won't hesitate to scratch or demote a star player that is playing outside the team concept. On two separate occasions late in the season, Ward sat the Heat's only true sniper, leading scorer Krys Kolanos, including once in Game 4 versus the Marlies with the Heat trailing the series 2-1.
Puck-moving offensive defenceman Brian Connelly struggled under Ward. He came to the team atop the AHL leaderboard for defensive scoring and was traded to the Heat while he attended AHL all-star weekend. But he was defensively suspect and often finished in the minuses in Ward's scoring chance count, so he spent most of his time in Abbotsford on the bottom pairing.
But nobody complained, because Ward was clear about his expectations, and the guys in the room played hard to meet them. More importantly, they played hard for one another.
"At the end of the day, I can say that every one of those guys in there cared about the team," said Testwuide. "Not a lot of teams can say that. If you've got 30 guys in there that care, it's unbelievable what you can accomplish. It speaks so much for Troy and the way he handles his coaching staff and the way he runs the whole show, it's unbelievable. He gets everybody to buy in."
Many feel we might hear similarly glowing reviews from the Flames players in 2012-13.
For more Heat and Flames' prospects chatter, the Heat will be hosting a liveblog with play-by-play guy Ryan Pinder and other media Friday, from 6-7 p.m. ET at abbotsfordheathub.com.