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Veteran Flames aim to make accountability a hallmark of team culture

Blake Coleman and Connor Zary Flames Blake Coleman and Connor Zary - The Canadian Press

The Calgary Flames are working to make accountability a hallmark of the team’s culture moving forward.

Rookies like Connor Zary, Matthew Coronato, Ilya Solovyov, and Dustin Wolf have seen increased playing time this season after the team fell out of contention early, trading established veterans for mostly draft picks and prospects.

Those increased roles come with increased responsibility, and Flames veterans are hoping that tough conversations during a difficult season will pay dividends in the future as those rookies become more established and, the hope is, key components of a Cup contender. 

Veterans like Blake Coleman, Nazem Kadri, Jacob Markstrom, and Rasmus Andersson are trying to set a standard where mistakes can be made, but players must learn from them. To reinforce that standard, the vets have had tough-love-type chats with younger players.

“Everyone understands that it’s nothing personal,” Kadri said of those sometimes profanity-laden dialogues. “You could go tell someone to f-off and then grab dinner later that evening. It’s that type of mentality.”

Flames coach Ryan Huska commended Kadri for learning how to tailor his message and knowing when to deliver a pat on the back or a kick in the rear. Kadri said he learned the art from Brian Burke, the former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs who drafted him back in 2009.

“You always address the problem and whatever the controversial topic is and then you follow it up with a positive,” Kadri said. “That way, you leave a meeting or encounter in a positive manner but still get your point across. That’s what I try to do with the young guys.”

Kadri recalled intense chats he had earlier this season with rookie forward Zary.

“I’m just trying to teach him how to play with some pace and not slow the game down too much,” Kadri said. “Sometimes, I felt like he was moving the puck a little slower than I’d like him to, because I’m pretty on-the-fly with it.”

Zary sees the value in those conversations. 

“There’s a time and place where you need an extra little push,” he said. “It’s just little things, just a quick couple of words. It’s not like they’re mad at you or anything. It’s just trying to get you to become a better player.”

Kadri chuckled when talking about how he delivers constructive criticism.

“You maybe have to chirp them once in a while,” he said. “Give them a kick in the ass or whatever it is, but usually they’re pretty receptive to it.”

The vets also know when to pick their spots. 

“Nobody is ever going to yell at you for giving up the puck and it’s a goal against or breakaway,” Andersson said. “It’s more the details around it. You’ve got to do the hard parts right.”

Andersson, Kadri, and Coleman all commended the Flames rookies for their work ethic this season and how receptive they’ve been to the feedback.  

“If a guy’s giving effort and he f----d up, I’m never going to be on a guy for that,” Coleman said. “The only thing I’d ever really get into a guy for is effort, but our young guys work hard.”  

Andersson said he might call a teammate aside if they didn’t get into a shooting lane or break up a play with their stick.

“If you see someone who misses a shot block more times than one, maybe you tell him because it’s not easy for us defencemen when the forward misses the shot block,” Andersson said.

The vets all agreed encouragement is the most effective tool in getting through to younger teammates. 

“People make mistakes,” Markstrom said. “I’m a push up guy more than a push down guy…I’m 34 and someone’s 21 – I’ve lived a long life, and they haven’t…it’s just human nature that you might take [the feedback] different. When you’re a little older, you see a bigger picture. When you’re younger, for me it was that you get criticized and you take it a little harder and you just look at one thing instead of the bigger picture.”

Coleman played on a New Jersey Devils team that finished 12 games under .500 during his first NHL season. He learned from that experience and is using those lessons now with the Flames. 

“We have different kinds of leaders,” Coleman said. “We have guys that’ll give the f--k yous. It’s not my approach because I didn’t respond to that when I was a rookie…for me, it’s more, how can I give them some constructive tips or criticism to improve their game  versus belittling or bringing them down, because I played with guys like that, and I didn’t have a ton of respect for that.”

Huska and the veterans feel that preaching those standards to young players will be a key for the next phase of this Flames retool. 

“If it’s done the right way, I think it’s important,” Huska said. “I think that’s how guys hold each other to account. I think that’s how they hold each other to a standard. When I was younger, playing junior, if there wasn’t a fight every week in practice, something was weird…I do think that players have to be comfortable enough to challenge each other in the right way.”

Kadri said that internal conflict was vital in the 2022 Stanley Cup win he was a part of with the Colorado Avalanche

“It was very important,” he said. “Those altercations happen relatively consistently…you don’t want that to happen on a daily basis, but to some extent, that can be healthy for a team.”

“It doesn’t need to be the norm, but when [the situation] calls for it, it can be effective,” added Coleman, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning. “But you don’t want guys that are just pointing fingers. I think there’s a fine line, but ultimately the reason that you see that on winning teams is because there’s highly competitive guys that want to win.”

Regardless of how the message is delivered, the goal is the same – to win hockey games and elevate the Flames from potential draft-lottery team to perennial contender.

“I’m trying to help them get better,” Kadri said of his interactions with the rookies. “I want to see them succeed and I want to see them do well. Obviously, things don’t always go super smooth, so there’s always some encounter that you have to take like a man.”