It’s only a handful of weeks into the new OHL season, but there’s already a sense of optimism surrounding the Flint Firebirds. Off to a 4-2-0 start, it’s not exactly perfection, but it seems miles ahead of where they were this time a year ago.
In early October of 2018, Eric Wellwood was preparing for his first season as an assistant coach with the Windsor Lancers of the OUA. After stops with both Oshawa and Flint to jumpstart his post-playing career as a coach, Wellwood was feeling fortunate just to be back behind the bench again.
“Once you get out [of coaching], it’s hard to get back in. I didn’t have a timeline or any idea of how it was going to happen,” says Wellwood.
It was by his own volition that he took a brief hiatus after coaching for three seasons. Coming off of Flint’s most successful campaign in 2016-17, Wellwood chose to pursue another project off the ice.
“My brother [Kyle] and I became angel investors in a concussion management company [HeadCheck Health] based in Vancouver. It was a company that was starting from the ground up, so we needed all hands on deck. So I had to take some time away from the game. It’s been on the right path, we just signed the CFL, so it’s given us an opportunity now where we have enough employees that we don’t need to involve ourselves as much.”
Maybe it was Wellwood’s impressive resume that already includes multiple Memorial Cup titles as both a player and a coach, or maybe it was the thought of having an ex-NHLer join him on the bench. Either way, Windsor Lancers head coach Kevin Hamlin didn’t hesitate to bring Wellwood aboard the university program in the summer of 2018. But as fate would have it, the Flint Firebirds also came back knocking on Wellwood’s door.
In a surprising turn of events after starting the season 0-7, Flint Firebirds head coach Ryan Oulahen resigned citing personal and family reasons in a statement. Needing a new head coach ASAP, it only made sense to target a candidate familiar with the situation he was getting into.
“I knew it was going to be difficult. But the reason I thought I had a chance [to succeed in Flint] was because I had a relationship with those guys already,” says Wellwood.
He was right. It was difficult. The Firebirds didn’t win their first game of the season until November 9th against Sault Ste. Marie, losing 18 straight in the process. Wellwood wasn’t even able to join the team for another two weeks after he got the head coaching job due to immigration paperwork and had no time on the ice in practice. On top of that, he was commuting daily from Windsor, Ontario while attempting to sort out his living situation. For most, this might seem like a living hell. But Wellwood refused to give up on the team.
“There was a lot of stress involved, but I knew what I wanted the team to look like,” says Wellwood of turning fortunes around in Flint. “It just took a lot of time to bring the kids back in and believe in a process.”
After struggling through the first half of the season, Flint’s second half record was much more respectable. After the calendar turned to 2019, the Firebirds went 10-15-4 the rest of the season. Terrific? No. But far better than their 18 game losing streak that lasted nearly two months.
“Every time a goal went in [early in the season] it was ‘here we go again’. When you have a good team, you can score three goals on them and they still believe they can come back and win. It’s hard to change that mindset, and I think that was the biggest change for us.”
As the youngest head coach in the OHL at just 29-years-old, Wellwood doesn’t have a wealth of experience to help him navigate difficult situations. But he does see his age being an asset when it comes to relating to teenage hockey players.
“I know what they’re going through. I just went through it [as a player] not that long ago, so I have an understanding of how much stress athletes are under on a daily basis,” says Wellwood. But he is also quick to note how things have changed since he last played junior for the Windsor Spitfires in 2010. “I think it’s funny how much older I feel [around the players]. When I played junior, we still didn’t have cellphones, and there was no social media. Society has changed drastically since the time I played.”
Although the junior players of today might function differently away from the rink, Wellwood still finds tremendous satisfaction in guiding the next generation.
“I love working with this age group because they’re full of optimism. They have their full lives ahead of them. Some of them think they’re far along in life, but they’ve got a ways to go,” laughs Wellwood. “They have no worries in the world other than hockey. They’re great kids, very impressionable, and they really want to learn.”
The new season presents a fresh start of sorts for Flint. The team returns a collection of players from last year’s roster who now have a chance to show how much they’ve grown from a lost season. Early indications are positive after the Firebirds saw a four game streak of the winning variety.
Wellwood says the goal remains a top five finish in the western conference this season. This time a year ago, that seemed impossible. But thanks to the hard work and dedication of their 29-year-old bench boss, enthusiasm for hockey in Flint appears to be alive and well.