We’ve watched Bruins players like Mark Stuart, Milan Lucic and David Krejci grow up before our eyes on and off the ice the last few years.
Players, however, aren’t the only ones that have to mature in their roles and improve every day, every season. Coaches have to start somewhere too.
And in the case of Bruins assistant Geoff Ward, he has been making the most of his first opportunity to be behind an NHL bench on a regular basis.
Ward rejoined Bruins head coach Claude Julien as an assistant in August 2007 after the two had worked together with Hamilton of the American Hockey League earlier in the decade. Ward has handled the Bruins’ power play – a bugaboo at times last season, but mostly a strength over the course of the last three seasons – and has worked closely with some of the players the Bruins have developed since the new staff took over prior to the 2007-08 season.
Now a full-time resident of the Boston area, Ward can look back at his decision to take Julien up on a job offer three years ago and be certain he made the correct choice.
“Each day that you’re here, you get more comfortable. As you establish relationships with players, and the relationships change as you get to work with each other, it’s a rewarding process to go through,” Ward told TheBruinsBlog.net in a recent rare interview (Julien swears his assistant’s to a rarely broken code of silence each season).
“We’ve been able to do it and have success at the same point and time. The fact that we’ve been able to make the playoffs every year has been good. The thing that we’re all excited about is we’ve been able to take our team that’s been out of the playoffs when we got here, to a team that’s what I would consider a contending team in the Eastern Conference. We’ve seen growth every year and I think each year you try to springboard into something that you can push to another level. That’s kind of what we’re working toward this summer heading toward the fall.”
Ward has been and continues to be unique on the Bruins’ coaching staff because not only is he the only one that never played in the NHL, he never played pro hockey. He started his career as a school teacher before getting into coaching in the Ontario Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and in Germany. His first big break came when Julien was promoted to coach Montreal. Ward took over as head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, who reached the Calder Cup finals.
Prior to joining the Bruins, Ward worked closely with players at all levels of the Edmonton organization as the development coach. His experiences at the lower levels of the game and with Oilers prospects equipped him with the tools to make a seamless transition to full-time NHL aide, even without any experience playing at the game’s highest level.
“When you have a background, regardless of whether you played or not, you have a lot of different backgrounds, doing a lot of different things – head coach and being in Europe and being in all different facets of the game. He brings experience. That’s what’s important,” Bruins forward Mark Recchi said about Ward. “He knows what he’s doing on the power play, he has some great ideas. He’s a great guy, he’s fun and he really is a players’ guy and really wants to communicate and work with you.”
While you’d never know it by gazing at his apparent always perfectly groomed head of hair, Ward is a tireless worker who’s always at the rink early at the start and late at the end, and even puts in the hours during the offseason.
“There’s not many guys that work as hard as Geoff does,” said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. “He takes pride in his work. I knew that going in. Claude spoke highly of him from when he worked with him before. He’s like a young player. He’s learned a lot in a short period of time and come a long way. It’s been good to see him grow. I know, when I go in there, he’s most often the first guy in there. He works like a bugger to fix things. He certainly has grown.”
It’s difficult to measure Ward’s influence beyond the improvements some of Boston’s former prospects have made during their emergence as NHL vets. It wouldn’t be fair to quantify Ward’s impact by just looking at the club’s power-play ranking, which was 23rd last season after finishing fourth in 2008-09 and 16th the season before that. After all, Ward can draw X’s and O’s on the board a million different ways, and he’s still not going to make up for the loss of Marc Savard and Marco Sturm to injury or the seemingly disinterested play of Michael Ryder and Dennis Wideman.
At full health, and with Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin added into the mix, Boston’s power play should be ready to be a force again this season – more like it was in the playoff wins over Buffalo than in the postseason losses to Philadelphia.
“That learning curve had hit a stage where the guys were comfortable and we were able to execute,” said Ward about the Boston power play when it was clicking last season. “So we really from that became a real two-unit power play, as opposed to being a one-unit power play as in years past, Savvy’s unit had done the majority of the scoring on the power play.”
Chiarelli is confident with the power play mostly in Ward’s hands.
“He comes up with a lot of perspective solutions when there are issues with the power play. He’s creative. He communicates well to the players. He’s still improving in that regard,” said the GM. “And he’s got a good sense and feel for it. … He looks at it from different angles. I appreciate that he doesn’t take the conventional approach at all times and I think the players appreciate that too.”
Now 48, Ward should be a candidate to be a head coach in the years ahead. Boston’s success will go a long way toward determining that, in addition to Ward’s continued growth.
“If he continues to improve the way he’s improved, and he continues to work around the group the way he does … that’s certainly going to be on his horizon,” said Chiarelli. “I appreciate the fact that he’s humble about it. A lot of assistant coaches aspire for a higher level. And any one individual, even [fellow assistants Doug Houda and Doug Jarvis], I think they’re going to have a chance.”
That humbleness might be the only thing holding Ward back. In the coaching game, where there are only 30 NHL head jobs available, self-promotion can be a powerful tool. But right now Ward isn’t out advertising his services; he’s plotting to give the Bruins their best chance at the Stanley Cup.
“That’s not for me to say. That’s for the powers that be,” said Ward when asked if he’s a future head coach. “I’ve had the opportunity to coach in a lot of leagues and I’ve been able to bring all these experiences to where I’m at now. My goal is just to continue to develop as a coach and I think you have to find ways in this game to reinvent yourself. I don’t think you’re ever done learning the game.
“At some point, if someone looks at kind of where I’m at as a coach and says ‘this would be a good fit,’ then I’d certainly welcome the challenge. For me to say that I’m going to be or not going to be, I’m not in a position to make that call, and I don’t want to make that call. That’s not the way I work.”
The only way Ward works is hard, and the Bruins figure to continue to benefit from that ethic at full strength and on the man-advantage.