After helping guide the Youngstown Phantoms to a Clark Cup Championship in his first year at the helm, coach Ryan Ward is staying in the Steel Valley.
On Friday, the Phantoms announced that they reached a contract extension with Ward to keep him in Youngstown through the 2027-28 season.
“I’ve said it from day one when we pulled into town last year,” Ward said. “I’ve always felt Youngstown can be a really special place and I think the group of people that we have here within the organization, from our ownership, (Bruce) Zoldan and (Murry) Gunty, to our president Andrew Goldman, to our GMs (Jason Deskins and Ryan Kosecki), to our scouting staff, to our coaching staff, to our players, our billet families, and season ticket holders, it’s an extremely special place.
“Getting to know the fabric of Youngstown and being a part of this city and obviously having the year that we had last year, it’s been such a special time and we’re super thankful as a family. There’s not a place I would rather be in the entire world than here with the Phantoms. I’m super thankful for the faith that they’ve shown in us, myself and our staff, with our plan and our vision. I’m excited to be in Youngstown and be a part of Youngstown for the foreseeable future.”
In the first year of Ward’s tenure, the Phantoms finished with a 38-19-4-1 regular season record, went 8-1 in the postseason, won the championship, and set a club record for players drafted in the 2023 NHL Draft following the season.
On the journey to the championship, Ward compared it to making their way up a mountain. After their victory over Fargo to lift the Clark Cup, that was the mountaintop.
Now, the Phantoms are back down at surface level again, looking to make their way back up.
After a championship season and ensuing contract extension, it’d be easy to succumb to human nature, not just for Ward, but for the organization. That being said, don’t expect the Phantoms to rest on their laurels.
It’s been a summer of introspection for the man behind the Phantoms bench. How do you handle the pressure? How do you keep your message from getting stale? How do you move on from such a great season?
Those are the thoughts that Ward had to wrestle with over the last few months and found his answer. Between a network of coaches he’s friends with across sports and a book by longtime coach Jimmy Johnson, Ward was reinvigorated and knew the plan for year two at the helm.
It all comes down to a continuous desire to learn and grow.
“Once things settled down in the summer and I went back with my family, you get to thinking about stuff like that,” Ward said. “How are you going to retrain the players and how are you going to continuously evolve your culture, and with the expectations and the target on your back from being defending champions, what are you going to do to make sure it’s not a stale message? I think you draw inspiration from a lot of different places.
“It’s like an artist or a writer, you kind of have a block at times. For me, I have friends that are football coaches, I have friends that are baseball coaches, and you lean on your network and you go through different experiences and all of a sudden the light bulb goes off and you feel like ‘Okay, we can turn the page, we’ve got this and I want to do this and that.’ … For me, it was just a summer of trying to learn, get better and be innovative and talk to our staff and really do a deep dive into what we do. We have some things that we’re going to change on the ice with how we work and we have some things that we’re going to change systematically and we’re excited for that. We’re excited to hopefully get better and fine tune what we do here and continuously learn.”
The Phantoms enter year two of the Ward era on Friday, with a preseason tilt against Muskegon. The rubber officially hits the road on Sept. 20 when the Phantoms square off with Tri-City at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Pa. Start time is set for 7:30 p.m.
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