By: Ryan Dittrick, CalgaryFlames.com
Ryan Huska had the office all to himself.
For the first time in over nine months, it was barren, but for the laptops, notebooks, duotangs and whiteboards – the remnants of over nine months of instruction, methodically filed.
But with the flurry of activity suddenly halted a week prior, it was all quiet down there at ice level.
Too quiet, too soon.
But a rare moment to sit back, smile, and reflect on what a wild ride it was.
“Look at that,” Huska said, pointing to an old ‘practice pad’ that his boss, Bill Peters, would scribble on and rashly fold into quadrants during an hour-long skate. “Just looking at the date, I bet I could tell you what we worked on that day.
“It was a good year. A good, good year. Lots of memories.
“In a way, it’s cathartic to look back and reflect on them so fondly – and help us re-focus for next year at the same time.”
For Huska, that goes double.
The 2018-19 campaign was the Cranbrook product’s first in the NHL after spending the previous four as the top guy with the Flames’ AHL affiliate in Stockton (and before that, Glens Falls, New York, aka Adirondack).
Here, he had many responsibilities that focused on the team’s defense and penalty-killing efforts, heading an aggressive system that, in part, helped the Flames cash a league-leading 18 short-handed goals.
He also worked closely with the defensemen, and considering his wealth of experience and familiarity with many of the team’s top prospects, the seamless transition from AHL standout to NHL regular provided both depth and high performance in a key position.
And for that – despite 16 years of coaching experience – he has Peters, Geoff Ward and Martin Gelinas to thank for their leadership in the coaches’ room.
“Listening to some of the stuff they’ve experienced, and all the great knowledge they have about the game of hockey, it was like me sitting on the carpet in kindergarten class just having them talk and trying to pick their brains as much as much as I could,” Huska
said. “Those are the experiences you’re thankful to have. And I am.
“Fast forward to now.
“It feels like forever ago that we first met each other in here, ready to embark on this journey back in September.
“Eight months later and poof … it’s over, ’til the fall.
“But because of the experiences we all shared together – learned together – we feel we’re in better shape to come back and be better next year.”
Regardless of what happens over the off-season, the Flames are in a position to do just that thanks to a cluster of young D-men already playing big roles on the roster.
Andersson, for example, earned a call-up in Week 1 after Travis Hamonic went down with an injury and never looked back, appearing in 79 regular-season games and all five playoff tilts, and at times joined Mark Giordano on the top pairing.
He had two goals and 19 points before adding another three (1G, 2A) in the post-season.
Andersson, Valimaki, Kylington and Noah Hanifin – who’s already appeared in more than 300 career games – are all under the age of 22 and are only getting better.
And that is in no small part to Huska’s work as the Defense Whisperer.
“It was pretty cool,” Huska said of seeing the graduates make hay with the Flames. “When we were in Stockton, or Glens Falls, and guys got called up, you’re excited for them. It is a special day when they get a call-up, especially if it’s their first one because you see the emotion, you see the excitement – a little bit of relief, too, because they finally get a chance to get up here.
“Now, having been here, it was really cool to see some guys come up and not just fill spots, but contribute. You do feel a little bit of a part of their journey along the way. You’re real excited to see them have success and it’s something we want to see continue here, because you need those guys to continue to push and continue to get better every year.
“Just like me, as a coach.”
So now, as the summer kicks off in earnest, the work starts anew for both player and tutor.
Not only have the expectations grown on the ice, the pressure is on for Huska – and Peters, and Ward and Gelinas – to up their game like never before.
“My biggest takeaway from this past year was how difficult the job was on a daily basis,” Huska said. “But …
“If you’re willing to learn, to push yourself every day, you can make some pretty big strides.
“That’s what I learned this year.
“And what I hope I was able to pass on to our players.”