Eric Wellwood has been through a lot in his hockey career, both the good and the bad.
The good, he played parts of four seasons with his hometown Windsor Spitfires, winning back to back OHL and Memorial Cup Championships in 2009 and 2010. Drafted in the sixth round by Philadelphia in the 2009 NHL draft, scoring five goals in 31 games with the Flyers.
The bad, a serious leg injury forced Wellwood to retire during his third season of professional hockey, at just 23 years of age.
“I was a bit naive thinking I was going to play to 35-40, but things happen in life that you can’t control, and you have to deal with them.” says the new Assistant Coach of the Flint Firebirds. “Thankfully I made a lot of contacts and met a lot of good people, so when things didn’t go as planned at least I had those relationships to fall back on.”
One of those contacts was DJ Smith, an Assistant Coach while he was in Windsor, now the Head Coach of the Oshawa Generals.
Unsure of what was next, Wellwood got a call from an old friend.
“DJ got in contact with me, said they were looking for an Assistant Coach, someone who is a bit fresher to the game. I had nothing lined up so I said I’d help out, not really knowing what to expect.”
Wellwood’s time in the OHL picked up right where it left off, winning an OHL and Memorial Cup Championships his first year behind the bench.
“I didn’t really envision myself having the success as early as I had, but I’m grateful DJ gave me that first opportunity and opened the door for me,” says Wellwood. “There’s a lot of things you can do in life but I’ve really enjoyed coaching and that’s something I want to continue on with, and maybe one day to continue on with and one day be a coach in the NHL”
The 26-year old joins the coaching staff of another relatively young coach, 31-year-old Ryan Oulahen, who spent five years under Stan Butler in North Bay and Brampton. Wellwood says being as young as they are should help the coaching staff relate to the players.
“Experience always helps, I can’t completely disregard experience. But, the kids are 16 to 20 years old, and me and Ryan have just gone through the process that these boys and men are trying to accomplish. I think they can relate to us a lot easier than someone who hasn’t gone through it in a while.”
As a coach, relating to the payers is something Wellwood takes very seriously.
“I like to create a very personal experience with each individual. I’ve had coaches in the past who kind of separate themselves, and that’s fine for some people. These kids are teenagers, going away for the first time and living on their own. They need a lot of guidance, someone to look up to a bit.”
“We still have a lot of work to do and a lot to learn, but it looks like we have the pieces in place.”
Following an inaugural season in Flint that was far from ideal, the organization is hoping to put the drama filled season behind them. They added much needed stability in May by naming George Burnett as General Manager.
Wellwood admits with the up and down season last year, he was curious to see which prospects still wanted to come to Flint.
“The kids that do commit, shows us that they want to be a hockey player and they don’t care about anything else. That’s the character that we want, and that’s the character that wins championships”
He says the organization is working tirelessly to build a new reputation around the league, and it’s already starting to show.
“We were so excited to see our young prospects be so enthusiastic about coming to an organizations that from the outside, looks scarred compared to most other organizations. My own experience has been grade A”
With three Memorial Cup rings already and future NHL admirations, the 26-year doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think we could be successful, because I’m not about wasting my time, and coach just to coach.”
“I know we’re here to win, and the young kids that we’ve drafted are on the same page.”
The Firebirds open their second season 21st in Flint on September 21st, against the Saginaw Spirit.