Eric Wellwood has experienced both the height of OHL success and the valley of a 19th place finish in the standings.
The three-time Memorial Cup champion (2009, ’10, ’15) took the reins of the Flint Firebirds on October 19, 2018, inheriting an 0-9 record in his first-ever head coaching gig. The then 28-year-old slugged it out over the course of the next several months, finishing the campaign on a slightly more positive note as the Firebirds won five of their last 10 contests, even pushing the eventual OHL champion Guelph Storm to overtime on one occasion.
In the end, Flint wrapped things up with a 16-46-6-0 record while surrendering a league-high 350 goals, missing the postseason for a second straight year.
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“I don’t know that you can step into much tougher of a situation,” said Wellwood of the first few weeks on the job. “I learned a lot. I think I saw some things that some guys who coach over the course of many years never have to deal with.
“I definitely got a crash course on how to handle and deal with some aspects that you won’t typically see on a year-to-year basis.”
With all that said, the 2018-19 Firebirds were a committed group that was highly active in the community. Nobody quit and the team bonded over the course of the 68 game schedule.
“Barclay (Branch) and I are extremely pleased with the resiliency of our team,” said Wellwood. “The kids never gave up. It would have been easy for those guys to pack it in when they went home for Christmas with three wins, but they came back, worked hard and our record showed that we made some progress.”
With last season in the rearview mirror, there’s plenty of optimism in Flint headed into 2019-20, and for good reason. The Firebirds will have healthy 19-year-old veterans in Dennis Busby and Connor Roberts to start the season, one of the league’s premier two-way centremen in Ty Dellandrea down the middle, 35-goal scorer Jake Durham back for an overage season and newly drafted NHL prospects in Ethan Keppen (Vancouver) and Vladislav Kolyachonok (Florida) back in the lineup.
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“I think the guys are excited, and that’s refreshing,” said Wellwood. “In many cases as a coach you’d want to try and temper expectations because it’s difficult to meet lofty goals, but in our case I think we’re grabbing onto the positivity and working hard to take the right steps toward becoming a competitive organization and a consistently good hockey team.”
In addition to some of their more veteran talent, the Firebirds also have a lot to look forward to. Former second round pick Marcus Gretz is back to full health ahead of his draft eligible campaign on the blue line. The club has received a commitment from 2019 fifth overall CHL Import Draft selection Evgeni Oksentyuk and second overall OHL Priority Selection choice Brennan Othmann enters the league as arguably the most dangerous goal scorer in his age group.
“From top to bottom, there’s a lot to like about our team, but the fact of the matter is we have a lot of work to do,” said Wellwood. “Nobody is satisfied when you finish as far below .500 as we did last season. We took some steps in the right direction, but I think our guys are all agreed that we need to train hard this summer and come back to Flint with the goal of being a competitive hockey team.”
Wellwood and newly named associate coach Ryan Kuwabara get the Firebirds started on the road in Sault Ste. Marie and Saginaw on September 20th and 21st.
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