Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Flint Firebirds Make First OHL Playoff Appearance since Move from Plymouth

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Flint Firebirds Make First OHL Playoff Appearance since Move from Plymouth

Article excerpt

Oulahen guides Firebirds to first OHL playoffs

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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. …

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