New Flames head coach Ryan Huska ‘good communicator’ who took different path to job

When Ryan Huska was eight years old, his minor hockey team from Trail, B.C., won a contest to have breakfast with Calgary Flames players Colin Patterson and Joel Otto.

“Something I’ve never forgotten,” Huska said Monday.

Fast forward almost 40 years and Huska is the Flames’ new head coach.

Calgary promoted from within again this off-season after elevating Craig Conroy from assistant general manager to GM last month.

Conroy’s first major move was to upgrade Huska after his five years as assistant coach to the head job.

“I wanted a good communicator, a leader, someone that can inspire this group, play sound defensive hockey with structure,” Conroy said Monday at a Saddledome press conference.

“On the offensive side, I want our guys to be creative, and kind of take it to the next level offensively because they’re so skilled nowadays, all the guys, you want to let them have that kind of free rein and go about doing what they do best. Hopefully, that’s scoring lots of goals.

“As we kind of narrowed the search down, it became more and more clear to me that Ryan and I had the same vision.”

The 47-year-old Huska replaced Darryl Sutter, who was fired in May.

Calgary (38-27-17) missed the playoffs by two points this past season.

Familiarity with players

The Flames have changed head coaches five times in eight years.

Huska coached Calgary’s American Hockey League affiliate between 2014 and 2018 when he worked with current Flames Andrew Mangiapane, Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington.

During his seven years as head coach of the Kelowna Rockets, Huska won a Western Hockey League championship and reached the Memorial Cup final in 2009.

Mikael Backlund, the longest-serving Flame after 14 seasons, played for Huska that year in Kelowna.

Huska was also assistant coach of the Canadian junior men’s hockey teams in 2011 and 2012.

Not a lot of coaches get the opportunity to move up within the same organization like I am getting here today.— New Flames head coach Ryan Huska

Huska won three Memorial Cups with the Kamloops Blazers (1992, 1994, 1995) as a player.

Chicago drafted Huska to the NHL in the third round (76th overall) in 1993.

The centre played five seasons of minor pro and appeared in one NHL game for the club.

He acknowledged Monday the path to his debut as an NHL head coach was different than that of someone who’d played 1,400 NHL games.

“Not lot of coaches get the opportunity to move up within the same organization like I am getting here today,” he said.

Earning trust critical in path to NHL

“I wasn’t a good enough player to actually have a decent NHL career. But I wanted to be in the NHL. So I knew in order for me to get there, I would have to take a lot of steps along the way. Part of those steps is earning trust.

“I had to get myself to a point where I know the players, I know the league, I know the demands that are placed on them, I know the demands that are placed on the staff, to allow me to be comfortable and confident in this position, which I fully am now.

“I feel fortunate that I’ve done it the way that I have.”

Among Huska’s priorities in 2023-24 will be getting more out of Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Huberdeau.

The Flames signed Kadri as a free agent and Huberdeau arrived in a blockbuster trade with the Florida Panthers that sent Matthew Tkachuk the other way last summer.

Neither Kadri nor Huberdeau, signed by Calgary for a combined 15 years and $133 million US in contracts, meshed well with Sutter. Their production was well below their career highs.

“I completely lost my swagger this year,” Huberdeau said at the end of the season.

After Sutter’s austere manner, Huska believes hard work and success can happen in a convivial environment.

“When you create an environment, you have to create something where the players want to be, number one, and they have to be pushed on a daily basis. Then eventually it’s them taking over,” Calgary’s new head coach said.

“So you want them to have fun around the rink. That’s important, but they also have to come with a focus to get better each and every day.”

GM Conroy discussed coaching vacancy with players

Huska indicated he wants a captain. The Flames went two seasons without one under Sutter. Defence is an area Huska wants to strengthen.

“There are certain categories or certain areas that we have to do a better job of, and one of them is the types of chances against that we would give up,” he explained.

Conroy said he discussed the coaching vacancy with both Huberdeau and top centre Elias Lindholm after his appointment to GM in late May.

Conroy replaced Brad Treliving, who departed after nine years and is now the Toronto Maple Leafs’ GM.

Huska said he spoke with Lindholm, who has a year remaining on his contract, before Monday’s press conference.

“There’s always unhappiness when you don’t win,” Huska said. “The players that had good years last year and the players that, to their own minds, didn’t have years they wanted to, it is a fresh start and that is something that’s cool.”

Mitch Love, winner of the AHL’s coaching award two years straight with Calgary’s affiliate, was among the final four candidates for the parent club’s head coaching job. Conroy leaned to the man with more NHL experience in the end.

“It really became clear the last four or five days that Ryan was the guy,” Conroy said. “He’s put his time in. He’s done everything he could. The only thing he hasn’t gotten is a chance to be an NHL head coach, and now he is.

“I felt like Ryan was 100 per cent the guy for me.”

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