Firebirds follow trend of young coaches with Oulahen, Wellwood hiring

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Firebirds follow trend of young coaches with Oulahen, Wellwood hiring
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  • Eric Wellwood
    Canadian ice hockey player

The Flint Firebirds continued an ongoing trend in the Ontario Hockey League going young behind the bench in hiring Ryan Oulahen as the club’s head coach while adding Eric Wellwood as an associate coach on Friday.

With the Firebirds hires, over a quarter of the league has a head coach under the age of 40 with the Hamilton Bulldogs yet to name a replacement for George Burnett, who has since joined Flint as the team’s general manager.

In May 2014, the Kingston Frontenacs made Paul McFarland, 31, the youngest coach in the league. There are also several young assistant coaches in the OHL including Greg Nemisz, 25, in Oshawa and Mike McKenzie, 30, in Kitchener.

Oulahen, who joins the Firebirds after serving as an assistant coach with the North Bay Battalion this past season, is just five years removed from playing in the American Hockey League. Wellwood, meanwhile, was playing for the Philadelphia Flyers as recently as the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

“We've got a couple guys here now that have had success in our league as players (and) have had success in our league in support roles,” Burnett said of his young coaches. “These guys know each other so it was an easy fit and I know they're going to make each other better and my plan is to support that in any way I can.

“Both of these guys are detail guys and it's shown in their work and the teams that they've worked with and the guys they've worked for.”

Burnett, named the Firebirds GM earlier in the week, admitted the league led by David Branch took the lead on the hiring of the coaches, but that he “had great discussions” with both coaches prior to them being hired.

The 54-year-old believes an emphasis on analytics is another reason so many clubs are going younger with hires.

“It's a big part of it. There's a place for it,” he said. “It's an other way for young guys that are hungry to be a part of our business. There is great information there, it is valuable information.

“You look at some of the hires in the National Hockey League in the last two and a half, three years and even more recently, those are the trends.”

The players see the benefit of having young coaches too.

Frankie Vilardi, a 20-year-old Kingston, Ont. native, scored nine goals and 21 points in 67 games during the Firebirds first season in Flint. He was one of several players to hear from the new coaches on Friday.

“Them being young, they went through what we're going through only a short time ago and that's big on helping us develop as players, not only on the ice, but off the ice too with everything that goes on in terms of being an OHL player,” Vilardi said. "(Wellwood’s) obviously got (NHL) connections, he knows what it takes to get there, and I think that's huge for us as players.

“Sometimes you get caught up in everything that (transpires) on the ice, off the ice, losing streaks, stuff like that. I think it's huge. He played in the NHL so he knows what it takes to get there.”

Oulahen a native of Newmarket, Ont. spent the past six years as an assistant with the Brampton/North Bay franchise. The 31-year-old former Detroit Red Wings prospect also served as an assistant coach of Team Canada at the World Under-17 Challenge.

“Ryan is coming from a great program led by Stan (Butler) and he's had great success in North Bay,” Burnett said. “He also had success in the league as a player, he also had success in the American Hockey League in Grand Rapids. He's ready to lead his own group.”

Wellwood, 26, has three Memorial Cup championships under his belt, two as a player with the Windsor Spitfires and one while serving as an assistant with the Oshawa Generals. Originally a sixth-round pick of the Flyers at the 2009 NHL draft, the Windsor, Ont. native appeared in 31 games with Philadelphia over three seasons. Wellwood retired after his Achilles tendon was severed in a game during the 2012-13 season.

“His Memorial Cup championships (with Windsor) and with Oshawa speak for themselves both as a player and a coach,” said Burnett. “A young guy that has had terrific experience. He's worked with great people both in Oshawa and in Windsor - again (he's) a winner.”

Burnett said its now up to Oulahen to decide on additions to the coaching staff. The team’s website currently shows vacancies for an additional assistant coach as well as a skills development coach.

The team will also look to add in the analytics department ahead of the 2016-17 season.

“It's something that we're going to talk about, among many other things, next week,” Burnett said. “There's a lot of guys that want to get their toe in the door and we'll make the right choices and we'll be patient as we go through this process earning more about my coaches and what they're all about, what their needs are, their strengths and talk about concerns, if there are any and make sure any decisions moving forward, they're ultimately the decision that'll land on my lap, but I want lots of input.”

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