Flint Firebirds make first OHL playoff appearance since move from Plymouth

Oulahen guides Firebirds to first OHL playoffs

As soon as Ryan Oulahen was hired as head coach of the Flint Firebirds last spring, he started phoning his players. He called captain Alex Peters first and then reached out to every other player, even meeting some in person, well before training camp began.

Communication is central to Oulahen’s coaching philosophy and has been essential in healing a locker-room rocked last season over the actions of the Firebirds owner.

“We started talking to these guys right from Day 1, trying to get a feel, letting them know of our plan and how we were going to approach things,” Oulahen said in a recent interview. “Especially with the leadership group, that was the biggest thing for me.

“(Peters) was the captain of this group last year. It was a no-brainer to make him my first phone call. I think he appreciated that as well.”

Calling Peters was Oulahen’s first step in a long process of transforming the Firebirds, who will begin their Ontario Hockey League playoff series against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds on Thursday night. It’s the Firebirds’ first post-season appearance since moving from Plymouth, Mich., in the summer of 2015.

It’s an impressive turnaround given where the team was last spring.

Firebirds players handed in their jerseys and walked out on the team in November 2015 after owner Rolf Nilsen fired the coaching staff. Head coach John Gruden and his staff were eventually reinstated but then fired again in February, reportedly dismissed both times for not giving enough ice time to Nilsen’s son, defenceman Hakon Nilsen. OHL commissioner David Branch had to step in, suspending the elder Nilsen from the league for five years.

Flint’s drama off the ice was reflected in the standings. The Firebirds finished with a 20-42-6 record and ended the regular season on a five-game losing skid with the third-worst record in the league.

They finished this season seventh in the Western Conference with a 32-28-8 record and are a dangerous team in the post-season.

“You could tell he already had a plan right from the get-go,” Peters said of Oulahen. “When he came in, he was just straight-up and honest. He’s an honest guy and he had a plan and he set about doing it. You could tell right away, just by the way he acted himself, that it was going to be a different year, a more positive one.”

Peters and star left-winger Nick Caamano both laugh ruefully when they hear their 2015-16 season described as difficult, but they can’t hide their excitement about Oulahen and how he turned the Firebirds into winners.

“I think there’s more of a winning culture around our locker-room,” said Caamano, who had 35 goals and 29 assists this season. “Winning’s been the biggest thing. That culture of winning is the biggest difference.”

Peters also noticed an immediate change in the team culture.

“At the very start of training camp, even in the summer talking to the coaches, they have such an impact on everything,” said Peters. “Just the way everything was organized as we came in you could tell right away it was going to be a more positive year.

“A lot of the energy from other players and the guys in the room, everything felt better. It was a new start and everything’s been built on that.”

Oulahen believes clear communication should be the No. 1 priority of any coach because it helps players understand their role on a team and if they’re meeting expectations. He also thinks it helps players develop off the ice as well.

“It doesn’t have to all be hockey,” said Oulahen. “It doesn’t have to all be ‘I’m the head coach and they’re my players.’ There’s a lot of interaction of ‘Hey, I’m a human being and I’m a father and I care about these guys too.’

“There’s a whole bunch of things you can do as a head coach to connect with these guys and let them know that you’re there to support them and you care about them, not just in hockey but in life.”

Two other post-season series start on Thursday, with Sarnia visiting Erie and Niagara travelling to Peterborough.

Five more series begin Friday, with Kingston hosting Hamilton, Mississauga welcoming Ottawa, Kitchener travelling to Owen Sound, Windsor visits London and Sudbury playing in Oshawa.

Follow @jchidleyhill on Twitter

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

A BBQ thank you at Kelowna’s Gospel Mission

The ninth annual Well Done BBQ brought Kelowna together

Two West Kelowna residents were arrested for alleged drug trafficking

RCMP executed a search warrant at a Chieftain Road home

Two Kelowna sites rezoned for pot shops

Cannabis retailers closer to reality for Lawrence Avenue, St. Paul Street

Vernon senior feels trapped in long-term care facility

Rose-Marie Lepodvin says she wants assisted living, but feels trapped in long-term care

VIDEO: Acknowledging skeptics, finance minister vows to build Trans Mountain project

Bill Morneau said he recognizes ‘huge amount of anxiety’ in Calgary over future of oil and gas sector

B.C. man faces deportation over father’s honour-killing conviction

Father lied to immigration, was later acquitted of charges in Jassi Sidhu’s murder

RCMP allows officers to grow beards

Members can now wear beards and goatees, as long as they’re neatly groomed

Girl, 10, poisoned by carbon monoxide at B.C. campsite could soon return home

Lucille Beaurain died and daughter Micaela Walton, 10, was rushed to B.C. Children’s Hospital on May 18

30 years later: B.C. woman uses sidewalk chalk to reclaim site of her sexual assault

Vancouver woman didn’t think her powerful story, written in chalk, would ignite such support

Car fire sparks grass fire in popular Okanagan park

Vehicle catches fire in Cougar Canyon parking lot; two occupants get out safely

Slain friend motivates rookie football player to make it with hometown B.C. Lions

Jaylen Sandhu, stabbed to death in 2014, a source of inspiration for promising RB Jamel Lyles

North Okanagan-Shuswap MP defends dedication to constituents

LETTER: Mel Arnold says he is open and accessible

Okanagan smash-and-grab nets electric bike

Rock thrown through front door of Southward Medical Supplies, bike grabbed from near door

Most Read