After a 26-point improvement in the Western Conference standings led to their first OHL playoff berth last spring, the Flint Firebirds embark on year three in the Vehicle City stabilized and ready for action.
Newly instated general manager Barclay Branch has made the most of hard work put in by a scouting staff led by assistant general manager Joe Stefan and head scout Dave McParlan, securing commitments from several of the club’s top OHL Priority Selection choices.
Four of Flint’s top five picks from this past April have expressed their intent to join the program including 10th overall selection Ethan Keppen of the OHL Cup finalist Toronto Nationals, Macomb, Mich. native and second round (23rd overall) pick Marcus Gretz, highly touted netminder Luke Cavallin out of Greely, Ont. chosen 28th overall and late 2000-born blueliner Zack Pilon who was chosen in the fourth round (67th overall) out of Smiths Falls, Ont.
Add those names to Flint’s top four 2016 OHL Priority Selection commitments in fifth overall pick Ty Dellandrea as well as second round selections Hunter Holmes (22nd overall), Dennis Busby (23rd overall) and just recently Jack Wismer (41st overall), and the Firebirds have built themselves a solid young foundation for the future.
“With the direction that things have gone here most recently it’s just a reflection of the job that has been done through the coaching and development staff in the organization,” said Branch, who was appointed GM of the Firebirds on April 17th following two seasons at the helm with the Sudbury Wolves. “Credit should go to our coaches, development staff and scouts for the great things that are happening and the big strides that have been made over the past year.”
It’s no surprise that, despite some turbulence in the organization’s infancy, Flint has quickly become a destination young players are drawn to. The Dort Federal Event Center boasts first class player amenities including a renovated dressing room, player lounge, video room, training centre and much more as well as solid schooling and billet families in nearby Grand Blanc.
Quickly developing into a franchise cornerstone, Ty Dellandrea recorded 13 goals, 11 assists and 24 points in 57 games after being the club’s first round pick in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection. The Port Perry, Ont. native who recently won gold with Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament came away happy with his first season in Flint.
“It’s been an awesome environment and I was so impressed with the way our guys were positive and made such a big improvement last season,” he said. “I think having a great coach in Ryan Oulahen for my first season, a guy who understands the players and brings a lot of playing experience to the job, was good for me and for the whole team.”
One of Dellandrea’s favourite parts of the Flint experience in his first OHL season was the commitment and support from the local fan base, a group that loves the speed and intensity of the game.
“They’re wild, they’re really into the game and they’re always on your side no matter what,” he said of the Flint faithful. “They love the scrums, big hits and the goal-scoring and they like to get on the opposition sometimes, which really brings the game to life,” he added with a laugh.
Though he just turned 17 in July, Dellandrea returns to Flint this fall with a desire to help fill a leadership void left by graduating overage veterans Alex Peters, Everett Clark and Mathieu Henderson.
“Ty is the blueprint in terms of the type of hockey player and person we’re looking to bring into our program,” noted Branch of Dellandrea’s drive to lead. “It’s essential to not only have elite hockey players, but elite people as well and we feel Ty is both of those.
“You also look to guys like Dennis Busby, who is going to have more minutes coming his way as a result of those departures,” Branch added. “Ty, Dennis and Hunter Holmes all attended Canada’s Under-18 Evaluation Camp in Calgary this past month and I think it’s an experience that will make them all better players moving forward.”
Equally exciting in Flint is the organization’s haul in the 2017 OHL Priority Selection, that sees the aforementioned Keppen, Gretz, Cavallin and Pilon commit to the program. Those selections bolster every area of the club’s depth chart, giving them a power winger in Keppen, a pair of defencemen in Gretz and Pilon and a goaltender of the future in Cavallin.
Big producers Ryan Moore and Nicholas Caamano will be back to lead the offence in 2017-18 as the Firebirds eye a return to the postseason, but the big picture looks promising and the future bright for OHL hockey in Flint.
“We’re working hard to develop a program in Flint that our players, fans and staff can all be proud of,” Branch concluded. “I’m excited for the season ahead.”
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