It was November 27, 2019.
A Wednesday night in Buffalo, the end of a four-game road trip for the Calgary Flames, and a 3-2 overtime victory against the Sabres, the first win for Waterloo’s Geoff Ward running an NHL bench.
A positive, amid what was a tumultuous time for the organization.
Their head coach Bill Peters was in the middle of a highly-publicized saga, after accusations surfaced he used racial slurs toward former player Akim Aliu while the two were with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Peters situation is one of many in the NHL this season that’s sparked change when it comes to personal conduct, including bullying and racism, and policies on how to handle such incidents.
But in Ward’s case, not exactly how he likely thought he would get his first NHL head coaching victory.
Two days after the game, Peters resigned as coach and the job has been Ward’s --- at least on an interim basis --- ever since.
“It’s obviously not the way you would like to get a head coaching job in the league,” Ward told KitchenerToday.com after the Flames practiced in Toronto last week.
“Bill Peters is a good friend, and he’s a good mentor for me, and a real good coach. It’s a little bit bittersweet in that regard. You’re happy that you get the opportunity, but it’s not the way that you want to have the opportunity presented to you.”
Still, a long journey for Ward, who has clearly never forgotten his roots, tipping his hat to a number of people moving up the ranks.
“I have, obviously, strong ties to the community of KW, and the surrounding area, and the stops that I had there were so important for me as a coach,” he said.
One of those people happened to be Don McKee, the former men’s hockey coach with the Waterloo Warriors.
“He got me into the coaching environment at an elite level, but also the education of coaching, just with the Coaching Association of Canada and the certification process through Hockey Canada,” he said.
Of his three seasons at UW, he fondly remembers 1991, and the Warriors made an appearance in the National Championship.
Afterwards, Ward moved on to the Waterloo Siskins, where he would work with two others he credits in his development as a young coach, assistant coaches Mike Wright and Chuck Neisen.
“They really taught me a lot about the art of coaching,” he said, “There’s an art to coaching, and there’s a science to coaching. And Donnie really gave me a good look at the science and the art, but Mike and Chuck really reinforced the art of it. So I owe them an awful lot.”
The peak of his time with the Siskins came in 1994, when the team captured a Sutherland Cup, in the old Mid-Western Junior Hockey League days.
“That was such a special team. The guys were so tight, and they came together so well,” Ward said, “We probably weren’t the best team in the league that year, in terms of talent at the beginning of the year, but we really became the best team by the end and we were able to win the provincial championship, so that was pretty cool.”
That success put him in the limelight for the next big jump in his coaching career just months later, taking over for Joe McDonnell as bench boss for the Kitchener Rangers.
“(Then-Rangers General Manager) Bob Ertel was huge for me in terms of giving me the opportunity, and also teaching me about hockey,” he said, “Even though it’s not professional (hockey) in major junior, it’s very professional-oriented in the way that it’s set up and the way that the game works, and the business of the game.”
It led to a five-year stint at The Aud, with Ward collecting a 108-102-26-5 record.
“The years that I spent with the Rangers were all memorable,” Ward recalled, “Just having to work with the quality of players we had, not only from what they did as hockey players but also how they were as people. I had an opportunity to be lucky enough to work with an awful lot of special people there, really good people.”
He would spend the 1998-99 season up Highway 7 as the head coach in Guelph, before shifting to the pro ranks.
And after spending seven seasons split between the ECHL, AHL and time over in Europe, Ward landed a job on the Boston Bruins bench.
He spent seven years as an assistant coach, winning a Stanley Cup in 2011 in the process, before resigning after the 2013-14 season to take a head coaching gig in Germany.
Soon, the bright lights of the National Hockey League were hard to ignore, and he was hired as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils in June 2015.
He’d spend three years there, before opting for the Calgary Flames.
But home is where the heart is. Ward says he was able to swing through the region this past summer, but also spends time with family that’s moved up into the Muskokas.
Otherwise, it’s the grind of an NHL season that keeps him busy. So an eastern Canadian road swing is meaningful for him.
“It’s always nice to get back and see friends, and see family. The nice thing about Toronto is if you can’t get there, then usually you have some people make it down for the game,” he said, “It’s a good time to connect, but at the end of the day, you've got to remember that we got a game to play and we’ve always got to be ready for that.”
It's with that mindset that’s helped the Flames stay competitive in the Western Conference, insulating the dressing room from all the outside noise --- everything from the Peters situation to the feud between Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk and Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian --- and just focusing on the task at hand.
Under Peters, the Flames went 11-12-4 to start the year.
Under Ward, the Flames now sit at 26-19-5 and locked in a four-way tie for second place in a competitive Pacific Division (with Edmonton, Arizona and Vegas).
Vancouver is just a point ahead of them headed into the NHL All-Star break.
A seamless transition, Ward says, as he adjusts to life in a dream role.
“I knew the players, and they knew me, so we were able to transition pretty quickly,” he said, “It’s been a busy transition, and now we’re at a place where it’s on to the every day duties of coaching and what that involves.”
“We look forward to it a day at a time here, as we move in to the most important part of the year, and that’s the last 32 hockey games after the All-Star break, trying to become a playoff team.”
And as for the two decade journey to be in this position?
“I wouldn’t change it for anything.”