Ryan Oulahen enters his third year as Head Coach of the Flint Firebirds prior to the 2018-19 season.
A year ago, everything about his new job as coach of the Flint Firebirds was a mystery to Ryan Oulahen.
He landed in an area he’d heard only rumors about and was coaching a group of players he would never have recognized had he bumped into them on the street.
“Last year at this time when I was sitting down with you, I was telling you about my plan of how to get to know the players as quickly as possible,” Oulahen said in early August. “I feel I know these players as well as I know my own kids.”
He also has a better feel for the Flint area, so much so that he didn’t leave town as soon as the Firebirds’ season ended.
“We love it,” Oulahen said. “I guess the best way to describe how we feel about the area is we’ve been hanging around all summer. We certainly immersed ourselves into the community. Our kids are into sports and programs around here. We’ve joined the local golf club. We’ve had a fantastic summer getting to know people even more and realizing how many people truly are hockey fans and support the Flint Firebirds.”
Oulahen’s 6-year-old son is in the Junior Firebirds program, while his 4-year-old is on skates and should soon be ready to play hockey, as well.
Oulahen certainly ingratiated himself to Firebirds fans by coaching the team to an Ontario Hockey League playoff berth one year after the team finished 18th out of 20 teams in its inaugural season in Flint.
In his first season as a head coach, the Firebirds improved to 12th overall before losing a five-game series to Sault Ste. Marie in the first round of the playoffs.
“We probably felt when we took over the team if we were able to make the playoffs that would be a major accomplishment,” Oulahen said. “We felt good about that. For sure, as a coach, there’s times in the year where I felt we could have done a lot better. We definitely improved as the season went on and I think we peaked near the end of the season toward the playoffs. I felt good about the club and where we were headed. We just ran into an extremely tough Western Conference.”
The Firebirds will try to make a deeper run this season, having the advantage of a year of guidance under Oulahen.
“Our players know the system,” he said. “They know the expectations on a day-to-day level. We’ve got great leadership in that room. That’s what I’m so excited about is we’re not starting from scratch. It’s building and improving.”
Oulahen became the Firebirds’ head coach at the age of 31 after six seasons as lead assistant coach of the Brampton/North Bay OHL franchise, where he played from 2002-05.
He got into coaching earlier than he had hoped, suffering a career-ending hip injury on March 27, 2009 while playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League. Oulahen was under contract to the Detroit Red Wings, who selected him in the fifth round of the 2003 NHL Draft.
Oulahen fell short of his NHL dream as a player, but perhaps one day he will get there as a coach. That’s not at the forefront of his mind right now, however.
“There’s no doubt I’m fully addicted and ingrained in coaching,” he said. “I want to go as far as I possibly can. Now, saying that, I think as a coach you just live in the moment. So my goal is to develop the Flint Firebirds into a championship team. That’s all I want to do. From there, if something happens down the road, it does. I’m really living my dream right now and having a great time. That’s pretty much the goal, to do the best possible job we can and to eventually bring a championship to Flint.”
Besides making the playoffs, Oulahen is most proud of the progress his players made individually during his first season with the Firebirds. Defenseman Fedor Gordeev was a draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs and other players saw some action with professional teams after the OHL playoffs.
“You really get the reward of seeing guys develop,” he said. “From one year to the next, they can make huge strides and huge gains. It’s the comment of when a player comes to you at 16 or 17, he’s a boy, and when he leaves you at 19 or 20, he’s a man. It’s amazing to see the progression and it really is rewarding as a coach.”
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