Ryan Oulahen is unique among the 211 players in the Brampton Battalion’s 15-year history: He’s the only one who returned to the club as a coach.
Centre Oulahen played 182 games over three seasons and captained the Troops in 2004-05, his final campaign. A fifth-round pick by the Detroit Red Wings in the National Hockey League’s 2003 Entry Draft, Oulahen played four seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate. A hip injury brought his career to a premature end after the 2008-09 season, and he returned to the Battalion in January, 2011, as an assistant coach under Stan Butler.
“Everyone has a different path to getting somewhere,” the 27-year-old Oulahen said before a recent practice. “It was great to play here for three seasons, be a captain for my final season and go on to a pro career. I was looking for a way to get back in the game, and to be able to make the transition to coaching in a place like Brampton was pretty easy for me. I was familiar with the surroundings and how the organization was run.”
Oulahen, who did some duty on the Griffins’ bench in 2009-10, figured he had plenty to offer in a return to the Ontario Hockey League.
“I was fresh from my playing days. I took about six months away from the game, and when I came back to coach I was about five years removed from the end of my career here. I knew about the little details, like the school schedules and what it was like to play here and go to university. I had been through it and could give the guys a lot of guidance.”
A fourth-round pick in the 2001 OHL Priority Selection, Oulahen, a resident of Newmarket, Ont., decided to enlist with the Troops after meeting with Butler following an 8-2 loss to the visiting Erie Otters on March 10, 2002.
“I talked about it with my parents, and it was ultimately my decision. I remember coming in here to talk to Stan after that game. I had a good feeling. I don’t know what it was, but it was exciting to sit here that day and watch guys like Jay Harrison and Jay McClement play. It sounded like a great opportunity for me and my family. I could go to York University after I finished high school. Everything we talked about that day came to fruition, and I had a great career here.”
Said Butler: “From the time he came here as a 17-year-old, Ryan handled himself well. He was a professional from the first time he came here. I always knew he’d be a good coach if he got into it, and with a little more seasoning he could be a very good coach going forward.”
Oulahen debuted with the Battalion in 2002-03 as one of a number of outstanding rookies that included forwards Brent Burns, Jamie Fraser and Wojtek Wolski, defencemen Martin Lojek and Stuart Simmons and goaltender Kevin Couture.
“That was a great group of guys,” said Oulahen. “That was probably the most memorable season I had. It was great being able to come in as a young guy and being able to look up to a guy like McClement and Chris Rowan and Ryan Bowness. There were guys like me, Burns and Fraser who didn’t really start to excel until after Christmas. The months of December and January might have the most impressive months of my OHL career. We’d all played a lot, and Stan stuck with us.”
Oulahen, who missed seven late-season games after suffering a knee injury in a 2-1 overtime win over the host Toronto St. Michael’s Majors on Feb. 23, recorded 43 points, including 21 goals, in 61 games. He said he found a mentor in captain McClement, who was in his final season with the Troops.
“I could relate to him. We were similar players, even if McClement produced more at this level than I did. I had to do the same thing he did when I went to the pros. I was a third- or fourth-line guy, a penalty killer, and I knew my role and did it. He was always a guy I could draw on, particularly when I became captain.”
Oulahen, named an alternate captain in 2003-04, sat out 11 games after being elbowed in the head from behind by Brandon Prust of the London Knights in a 6-1 home-ice loss Nov. 23.
Oulahen scored 17 goals and added 18 assists for 35 points in 57 games in a season that saw captain Bowness traded to the Oshawa Generals.
With several veterans from 2002-03 lost to graduation or the pro ranks and Burns off to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild at 18, the Battalion won only 25 games, the fewest since it won eight games as an expansion team, and got into the playoffs as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
“There were high expectations for us heading into that season,” said Oulahen. “All of a sudden Burns doesn’t come back, and guys who were expected to have big years struggled. I was injured, and that was a tough season for me, but it’s something I can always draw upon as a coach. I talk to the guys about how we learned to get through it, how we fought through things as individuals. You needed a lot of mental toughness to get through a season like that if things aren’t going your way.”
The Troops drew the high-powered Ottawa 67’s in a conference quarterfinal, and Oulahen got the assignment of shutting down fellow Newmarket resident Corey Locke, the OHL’s two-time scoring champion. Locke had four points, including three goals, in a 7-5 win at home in the series opener but managed just six points the rest of the way as the Battalion emerged with a seven-game upset.
“We lost that first game and never looked back,” said Oulahen, who contributed eight points, including two goals, in the series. “All season we knew what we had here. We were struggling with injuries and other things. I think we knew that if we matched up with Ottawa we could win that series. We’d had success against them during the season. Winning that series gave us some satisfaction heading into the summer.”
The deciding game, a 3-1 win at Ottawa, was the only game in which Locke and Oulahen both failed to register a point. Victory came with a price for Oulahen.
“That was the game where I got a tooth knocked out on the first shift. I came back to the bench, and Brad Handley, who was the trainer at the time, helped me out and I played the rest of that game with pain, but I loved every second of it. I’ll never forget the satisfaction when the buzzer went at the end of Game 7 when I thought of that accomplishment.”
As a 19-year-old in 2004-05, Oulahen enjoyed the finest offensive season of his OHL career, scoring 27 goals and adding 31 assists for 58 points in 64 games, third in team scoring behind Wolski and Luch Aquino.
The Troops enjoyed a fine season but lost four of their final six games to finish fourth in the conference, getting a quarterfinal date with the Sudbury Wolves.
“I think that last weekend really hurt,” said Oulahen. “We could have finished anywhere from second to fourth, and we lost here to Peterborough. We fell to the fourth spot and ended up with Sudbury. If we’d ended up with a different seed, who knows what happens in the playoffs.
“We stress to the guys here now that a game early in the season might not be that huge at the time but, if you lose, those points might come back to get you later.”
The Battalion lost the opener in overtime at home and dropped a 4-1 decision at Sudbury in Game 2. The Troops pushed the series to a sixth game with a 4-2 win at home in Game 5, but it came at a cost, as Oulahen left the ice on a stretcher courtesy of an elbow to the head from Zack Stortini. That game would be the last of Oulahen’s junior career. He watched from the stands in Sudbury as the Wolves finished the series with a 5-4 win in double overtime.
“We knew going into that series it would be a tough battle. We were so close in the standings; all the games were tight. Losing the first game in overtime made it really tough for us. I was on the ice when that goal was scored, and I knew we had to go to their rink the next night and that was a tough place to play. Losing that first game put us behind the 8-ball, and there was some tough sledding the rest of the way. For me, watching from the stands in Game 6, it was tough. I wish I’d been on the ice. You always wonder, ‘What if?’”
Oulahen, married with a young son and another child on the way, is unsure whether he’ll accompany the Troops to North Bay next season.
“I knew there was a chance the team could move, and when the actual news came it was shocking. All we can do as players and coaches is worry about this season. North Bay will be a great opportunity in a great hockey city, and that’s all you can ask for.”