Whenever Kyle Okposo needed advice during the past decade, he turned to his old high school coach. Tom Ward helped Okposo grow as a hockey player and a man, and their connection remained strong as Okposo made his way through college, the minor leagues and the NHL.
“He’s somebody that’s been in my life for a long time,” Okposo said Sunday, “and he’s somebody that I look up to and look for if I need advice. Going through a tough stretch, he was always a guy that I could call or text. He always seemed to say the right things.”
This summer, it was Okposo’s turn to say something to Ward. It was an exchange that made both men happy.
Simply put, it was welcome aboard.
Two weeks after signing Okposo, the Sabres hired Ward as an assistant coach. He joined fellow newcomer Bob Woods on Dan Bylsma’s staff that included holdover Terry Murray.
“It’s definitely somebody that I’ve looked up to for most of my life,” Okposo said. “I was really excited. I texted him right away and saw him a couple weeks later, so I was just ecstatic.”
The goal of Ward and Woods is to build similar connections throughout the Sabres’ dressing room.
“We’ve got a bunch of young guys, and we’re trying to find ourselves, find our way, find our team, find who we are,” Ward said after practice in KeyBank Center. “We’re a work in progress, but it’s been a blast. I’m kind of just in hockey heaven.”
As the 1-2-1 Sabres try to gain their footing on the ice, their coaches are doing the same off it. They’ll head into Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia learning about the players, the system and each other.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about Dan,” Woods said. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about the ownership. I like the looks of the young group that’s starting to really come.
“You want to be part of an organization that’s going to give you an opportunity to have a chance to win, and this was a great fit.”
The chance to work with a young core of players is what led Ward and Woods to Buffalo. They’re teaming up to coach the power play, while Murray is handling the penalty kill and defense.
For Woods, it’s a return to the NHL. He was an assistant under Bruce Boudreau in Washington and Anaheim from 2009 to 2014. He spent the past two seasons as coach and general manager of Saskatoon in the Western Hockey League, but something shiny was too tantalizing to stay.
“You can’t win the Stanley Cup there,” the 48-year-old said. “This city would love to have a winner, and if we could be a part of that it would be really special.”
Championships line Woods’ resume. He won the Calder Cup in the American Hockey League as a coach, assistant and player. He also won an ECHL title as a player-assistant, and the former defenseman is a member of that league’s Hall of Fame.
“Winning’s fun,” he said. “Everybody wants to be a part of that.”
Ward is also accustomed to winning. The 52-year-old spent the last 18 years at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Minnesota, where he captured nine USA Hockey national titles. The list of alumni includes Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Stafford, Zach Parise and Okposo.
“He kept producing good players and good people, and I think that’s a real testament to him,” Okposo said.
This is the first NHL job for Ward, who was a head coach in the United States Hockey League and an assistant at the University of Minnesota before going to Shattuck. Family kept him at the prep school, but his three daughters are now grown and his wife can work remotely, so he answered Bylsma’s call.
“Everybody as a player and coach aspires to play and coach in the best league in the world, and I’m going to take a swift kick at it and see what happens,” Ward said. “The timing was perfect. The stars aligned. I’ve had a couple of other opportunities to do something similar to this. It just wasn’t the right time nor with the right people.
“With a young team and me coming out of what I’ve been doing the last 18 years, I felt as though I had some wisdom to bring to a young group to try to help teach them how to play. That’s what they were looking for from me.”
The newcomers know it will take time to build relationships. They’re looking forward to it.
“It’s taking time before practice or after practice, on the bus or in the locker room,” Woods said. “Just pull them aside and get to know them a little bit, let them get to know you. There’s got to be a comfort.
“I think this group is a really tight group. The coaching staff is phenomenal. Everybody gets along. Everybody’s got a lot of similar philosophies. It’s pretty exciting to be part of it.”