By Tim Ubels (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: March 26, 2014

The Heat are counting on players like Ben Street, Chad Billins, and Corban Knight to push the team into contention. (Image:  Abbotsford Heat / Facebook)
The Heat are counting on players like Ben Street, Chad Billins, and Corban Knight to push the team into contention. (Image: Abbotsford Heat / Facebook)

Most NHL players begin their careers in the minor leagues. After the excitement of draft day fades, the first professional step will often be reporting to their franchise’s AHL or ECHL affiliate, earning a fraction of the salaries promised by one-way contracts (AHL players typically earn $60-100,000 a year), developing skills and learning the game in the hope that they will one day get the call to the parent club.

But things are more complex than simply waiting for the chance to make an early impression. Minor league hockey is about more than just developing individual player skill sets. In order to build a winning team, it takes more than just mechanical teaching. It takes the development of a winning mentality even when the scoreboard doesn’t reflect an on-ice effort. Players must not only hone their skating or puck-handling skills, but also learn what it takes to be successful at the game’s highest levels. This is what Heat coach Troy G. Ward has tried to accomplish in Abbotsford over the past few seasons.

Before I started reporting on the Heat, I assumed most minor league player development executives and scouts were simply concerned with players putting up good numbers until it was time for them to make the jump. However, post-game media press conferences have shown me this kind of simple-statistic-based mentality is out of date, and does not exist in Abbotsford. Heat management values teaching their players how to win just as much as they do fine-tuning the mechanics of their play. Ward often talks about the team “taking pride” in the good things on the ice and gaining confidence while putting together a solid team performance.

An emphasis on winning at every level of their development creates a level of confidence and competitive drive, which carried over this year when players like Joni Ortio, Corban Knight, and Tyler Wotherspoon got their first NHL call-ups. It became obvious once they cracked the Flames’ roster that this was something they were trained for from the get-go in Abbotsford, rather than a lesson to be learned under the scrutiny of their first few big-league games.

While 21-year-old Wotherspoon remains with the Flames due to their injury-plagued back end, Knight and Ortio were both returned to the Heat this past week, much to the delight of Heat fans, who should expect to see both players in the lineup for the team’s late season playoff push. Ortio, who was recalled as an injury replacement for Karri Ramo, posted a 4-4-0 record with a 2.51 goals against average and a .891 save percentage in nine games with the Flames. Knight, who spent most of his time on the team’s fourth line, picked up his first NHL goal and nine hits in seven games with Calgary.

Abbotsford has been struggling recently, dropping 10 of 11 games, falling from first in the Western Conference to fifth in less than a month. However, returning players and slump-busting goals changed the team’s fortune on Saturday night against Hamilton.

Veteran forward Corey Locke picked up his first goal as a member of the Heat, and first in 19 games, and goaltender Aaron Dell made 37 saves to earn his first career AHL win (a 5-1 final score). The Heat managed three goals in 53 seconds during the first period, with Locke, Chad Billins, and Ben Street providing a solid 3-0 lead after 20 minutes for the team to work with. The returning Corban Knight picked up an assist on Billins’ 10th goal of the season.

The next Abbotsford Heat home game is against the Rockford Icehogs on Friday, April 4, with puck-drop at 7 p.m. Brendan Morrison, who played most of his career with the Vancouver Canucks before finishing it in Calgary, will also be there for the contest’s pre-game ceremony.