With his daughter Valentina by his side in the Calgary Flames locker room, Milan Lucic ruminated on the importance of what he calls Happyland.
Happyland, to Lucic, is the rink itself — a magical place where distractions, such as Friday’s dramatic departure of head coach Bill Peters, disappear if only for a while.
“I think I speak for everyone,” the hulking winger said Saturday night after the Flames dispatched the Ottawa Senators 3-1 in the first home game under interim head coach Geoff Ward. “When you’re out there, you get a chance to be free and be yourself and not think of anything other than doing what you love to do. And that’s playing hockey.”
Happy is not a word anyone would use to describe Calgary through the first two months of the 2019-2020 campaign.
Fresh off a first-place finish in the Western Conference — and despite losing in five games to the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs — the Flames considered themselves legitimate Stanley Cup contenders to start the season.
Since then, however, they’ve struggled to score, endured a six-game losing streak and watched defenceman T.J. Brodie collapse during practice on Nov. 14. The defenceman was convulsing on the ice before paramedics rushed him to hospital — a situation defenceman Mark Giordano called the scariest moment of his career. Brodie is, thankfully, okay and returned to the lineup on Nov. 25.
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But that same night, during a game in Pittsburgh, things got even worse when Akim Aliu tweeted allegations of racism against Peters from a decade ago when the two were with the American Hockey League Rockford IceHogs. Aliu claimed Peters repeatedly used a racial slur in a profanity-filled rant about his choice in hip-hop music.
One day later, former NHL defenceman Michal Jordan alleged Peters was physically abusive when he coached the Carolina Hurricanes.
Flames general manager Brad Treliving put Ward in charge of the bench last Wednesday in Buffalo. By Friday, Peters was officially gone and Ward was interim head coach.
The Flames beat Buffalo 3-2 in overtime before dispatching the expansion Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.
“For Wardo, it’s awesome,” said forward Dillon Dube. “Guys are really working for him now. Just the situation that happened, he comes in and it’s his first head coaching job in the NHL with us. It’s just awesome for him to be able to get two wins.”
On Friday, at his first home-ice practice as head coach, Ward asked Rasmus Andersson to play disc jockey and select music to pipe over the loudspeakers at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
The Swedish defenceman chose Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, Queen’s Radio Ga Ga and It’s Tricky by Run DMC.
And so the music plays on in Calgary with Ward asking players to take turns with DJ duties.
“The frustration level is not high right now,” Ward said. “Guys are really helping each other out, talking, finding solutions. Talking to each other. They’re more solution-oriented rather than frustration-oriented, whereas some points earlier that may have been the case.
“We’re moving in the right direction. Guys are starting to see their play is trending up — and they’re feeling good about that. They’re finding ways to support each other and, as a result, the mood on the bench is real good.”
Ward is a one-time Grade 5 teacher in Kitchener, Ont. Now an 11-year assistant coach in the NHL, Ward helped the Boston Bruins win a Stanley Cup in 2011. He smiles easily and exudes positivity — which might be exactly what the Flames need in the post-Peters era.
“We’ve got seven out of the last eight points here,” Lucic said Saturday. “We want to get that good feeling going again. And how you get that good feeling again is by working hard and playing good defence.”
Further endearing himself to his charges, Ward cancelled Sunday’s practice to give the Flames two consecutive days off.
Two days to escape to the Rocky Mountains. Two days to sleep in and play video games. Two days to change diapers and hit the toboggan hill with the kids.
“December is a great month for everyone with the holiday season coming up,” Lucic said. “It’s no different for us as players.”
The hard-luck Flames enter December at 13-12-4 in the thick of a cluttered playoff race in the Western Conference.
“For us it has been a tough month for travel and with everything that happened, all in all, we’ll take it,” Ward said. “We can be happy with the progress we’re making but we can’t be satisfied with it. There are a lot of areas we’ve got to improve to get to where we ultimately want to be.”