Phantoms put focus on culture


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Nov 07, 2023

Phantoms put focus on culture

Oct 16, 2023 Staff file photo / Brian YaugerPhantoms coach Ryan Ward (left) and Andrew Strathmann hug after the team clinched the 2023 Clark Cup title. YOUNGSTOWN — One conversation with Youngstown

Oct 16, 2023

Staff file photo / Brian YaugerPhantoms coach Ryan Ward (left) and Andrew Strathmann hug after the team clinched the 2023 Clark Cup title.

YOUNGSTOWN — One conversation with Youngstown Phantoms coach Ryan Ward about his philosophy and the word “culture” will pop up early and often.

Since taking over as the Phantoms coach in May of 2022, Ward has worked to instill his brand of culture to the team. With a close-knit group last season, the Phantoms ended the season on top as Clark Cup Champions.

But Ward and staff are trying to foster a culture of great kids achieving great things through love, trust and accountability — not just for a season or two, but in the long term.

“I think there’s a lot of love, a lot of trust. I think that we are completely fine with being vulnerable with one another and understanding that we are all in this together,” the second-year coach said. “I think that you hear a lot of negativity around different things these days and that’s not us. We work hard and we were there for each other and every single player on our team is equal in the pecking order. … We want to we want every player in Youngstown to be authentically themselves.”

While some teams have ignored character and fit for the sake of talent, that’s not how Youngstown has operated. Ward, the scouting staff, and co-general managers Ryan Kosecki and Jason Deskins have all aligned on what makes a Youngstown Phantom. While obviously not ignoring the talent side of things, a player’s character is the first and most important attribute.

And while the USHL is a development league, designed to get players ready for the next steps in their hockey careers, an important aspect of what the Phantoms have preached is to view this as more than just a stepping stone. While there is a next step for these players, whether it’s college, or a potential pro career down the road, you can’t skip steps and look too far ahead.

“I think when you sacrifice character for talent, you’re doing yourself a disservice. At the end of the day, if you want to win and you want to be there at the end, the locker room and relationships and trust are going to drive that,” Ward said. “The guys who are willing to go the extra yard to battle for each other, battle for the organization, that’s really what separates everything.”

A prime example of the Phantoms’ culture in action came in the team’s recent victory over Des Moines.

It was the team’s “Phantoms Phight Cancer” night, which included specialty jerseys for the occasion.

The normal bearer of the captain’s ‘C’, Andrew Strathmann, gave it up for the night. Wearing it in his stead was defenseman Conner de Haro, in tribute to his mother, who lost her battle with cancer over the summer.

“Obviously, it has nothing to do with me or the team, it’s about him,” Strathmann said. “I love Conner. I love everyone on this team. For me, it was all about that kid that night and going out there and all of us playing for him, and fortunately, we came out with a win.”

Before the game Saturday, Strahmann approached his coach, floating the idea of giving de Haro the ‘C’ for the game. Ward, unsurprisingly, was on board with the decision.

“That’s a huge reason why (he’s in Youngstown.) He’s a completely unselfish player,” Ward said of Strathmann. “When something goes on with anyone in our locker room, it hits home for all of us, and I say that with 100% seriousness that it’s like a big family. We don’t take that for granted. … For Andrew to give (de Haro) the captaincy that night, I think speaks volumes about our players and what they feel for each other.”

Strathmann, who became the club’s all-time assists leader for a defenseman during Friday’s contest in Omaha, believes that the off-ice mentality instilled in the players has led to the success that’s been seen over the last year.

When the players feel more free to be themselves, the belief is that they’re more willing to go to war for each other.

“I think we made it pretty clear that to be in the room, you have to be yourself, you have to be your own person,” Strathmann said. “And I think going onto the ice, everyone respects you on a different level and I think that’s why we were starting to have more successes, just because we’ve been coming together as a group.”

In light of hazing and bullying scandals that have made headlines everywhere over the last few years, Ward has made it obvious that things like that aren’t a part of Youngstown. Instead of a more “old school” approach of browbeating players to fit a specific mold, the Phantoms’ locker room is one of collective growth.

Ward mentioned that young players have a hard enough time adjusting to the USHL, just at the on-ice level. The last thing they need is to struggle with issues in the locker room in addition to everything else.

As a coach who has had high aspirations of championships and making Youngstown a “junior hockey destination,” Ward is taking every step possible to not only build a team designed for sustainable success, but to foster a culture that players want to be a part of. It’s not just success that they’ve been chasing, it’s continual success.

“I think that when players trust each other and they trust their coaching staff, the organization has their best interest in mind and when when players understand that if an older guys giving them advice, it’s not a personal attack, it’s a thing to try to make them more comfortable and help the team walls get broken down, you start seeing players feel comfortable and take huge steps in their own on and off-ice development,” Ward said. “And I think that’s really the secret sauce of how you’re able to be sustainable. Young and attracting the best players because it’s a place that young players can come here and play and be comfortable and be safe. I think that’s a huge, huge part of building an organization that can be competitive every single year.”

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