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.
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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press