Houston Aeros fans hear his name announced every night. They sometimes see and/or hear him interviewed by Joe O'Donnell during pregame or one of the intermissions. Yet ask most fans about assistant coach/assistant GM Troy Ward, they probably won't be able to tell you too much about him.
Many Aeros fans remember the run the Aeros went on in the playoffs last year, a run which nearly resulted in the team playing for the AHL Championship. And most fans probably remember that the team was decimated by injuries heading into the playoffs, especially at the goalie position.
Ward will tell you that his primary job is to make head coach Kevin Constantine's job easier. And he does that by handling all the business part of the team's hockey operations in Houston. By doing this, Constantine is able to focus on coaching the team. And part of that job, at least last year, was finding players at playoff time that were able to help the Aeros.
Ward has been an assistant to Constantine in Houston and in Pittsburgh of the NHL. He's twice been a head coach in the ECHL -- where he was a coach of the year -- and he was also the ECHL's Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations. He's been an assistant coach in the defunct IHL and at the college level. He's also been a head coach at the college level. So it's safe to say that Ward has a wide-range of contacts that he can use when the team's desperate for help. And that's something he did many times last season. It was Ward who made the call to Tony Hrkac to get his veteran playoff experience on the roster. And it was Ward who hunted down goalie Matt Climie as the playoffs were nearing an end yet still the team's goalies were falling apart due to injuries.
With the new regime in Minnesota, Ward doesn't have the same player acquisition powers this season that he had last. But he still consults with Jim Mill when player moves are being contemplated.
Then comes the coaching part of the assistant coach job.
"So I handle the offensive part of our team for the most part in the last two years here," Ward said Saturday night. "As you mention, I've run the power play the last two years here. That's what I focus on during the game. Even though I'm down with working the defenseman, and I change our defense, I still look at our team offensively. Whenever we have the puck, that's my time to really be in charge of the team. Kevin is more in charge of the team when the team doesn't have the puck and defensively."
And yes, Ward is well aware of the problems that the team's having on the power play this season. It's part a talent issue, part a system issue, and part a continuing-work-in-progress issue. And believe it or not, as bad as the numbers look, the numbers have improved from the worst in the league earlier this season to number 22.
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"With this particular team, it almost goes back to the reflection of our first year [2007-2008 season]," Ward said. "We talk about simplicity and doing things really simple. Last year's group [Krys Kolanos, Corey Locke, and Jesse Schultz] could make things very difficult look very easy. This year, and our first year, we don't have the talent level we had with some of those individuals, or the finishing power, the ability to score goals. So what we're trying to do this year is keep it simple, and really continue to make the penalty killers, the opponent, defend multiple shots....This year, it's a little more of a work in progress."
This year's team is a work in progress in more than just the power play. Ward says that there are still players new to the team who are having trouble with adjusting to Constantine's system and style of play, and thus are still attempting to do too much on their own. The key, Ward says, is each player knowing and his understanding his role on the team, and then each player not going beyond his role. He's hoping that vets to the system, like Brandon Rogers and Max Noreau, will be able to convince the newcomers that Constantine's system can and does work if they trust in it.
So work in progress the Aeros are. But with men like Troy Ward and Kevin Constantine handling that progress, things should continue getting better for the Houston Aeros.
A MISCELLANEOUS NOTE:
The Aeros lost to the San Antonio Rampage 4-2 on Saturday, and beat the Syracuse Crunch 5-4 in OT last night. They next play Friday in Milwaukee, and will host Abbotsford on Sunday.