09/29/2010 7:00 AM
September 29, 2010
When the Grand Rapids Griffins arrived at training camp in Traverse City less than two weeks ago, a familiar face was missing from their roster: Ryan Oulahen.
After five seasons with the organization, Oulahen was forced to retire due to a hip injury he suffered during a 2009 game.
"It totally felt weird to know that I'm not going to play hockey this year," he said from his home in Barrie, Ontario. "For the first time, it's really sunk in: I'm not going back to play hockey."
Oulahen dislocated his hip after taking a hit at Norfolk on March 27, 2009. After a pair of surgeries and months of rehabilitation, he attempted to come back late last season, but lingering soreness prevented him from ever taking the ice.
Last March, he went back to his doctors to see what more he could do. They told him to get some rest and do as little as possible in an attempt to "get things back to normal."
One problem: The hip wasn't feeling any better. He had one more surgery in mid-June in an attempt to find out what was causing the lingering pain.
"They said my hip was not normal, and everything they hoped would work wasn't working," he said. "In order to extend my quality of life, they said I should not go back and play hockey."
The doctors also told Oulahen his hip gradually will cause him more health problems over the years, such as arthritis.
"At that point, it really wasn't a decision," he said. "From Day 1, my No. 1 issue was health. I wasn't going to sacrifice my hip and play and then not be able to walk."
A fifth-round draft pick by the Detroit Red Wings in 2003, Oulahen had 53 goals and 54 assists in 302 games with the Griffins.
He also was a valuable penalty killer, but his biggest contributions might have been as a leader in the locker room.
"It's unfortunate that it was one of those injuries that he just couldn't come back from," Griffins general manager Bob McNamara said. "It's too bad. On and off the ice, he was a valuable part of our team, a strong leader, a smart individual."
A few months after the injury, Oulahen served as an assistant coach alongside Curt Fraser and Jim Paek during the Griffins' 2009 playoff run.
Coaching is something Oulahen might be interested in somewhere down the road. For now, though, he is enjoying time with his wife, Kendal, and is working on a business degree through correspondence courses.
"I talked with Curt and Mac (McNamara), and they said coaching might be something I'd be good at. But they agreed that I should take some time for myself, then pursue some other things," Oulahen said. "I'm young enough and lucky enough that I have the time to invest in myself."
Oulahen still keeps in contact with Darren Helm, Jimmy Howard and other friends he made within the Griffins organization, and he intends to make periodic visits to West Michigan.
"After five years there, it feels like Grand Rapids is home," he said. "You're definitely going to see me back in the stands for a game or two."
Oulahen never imagined that night in Norfolk would be his last game, or that his career would be over at age 25.
A few months ago, he said he had no direction and no focus after learning hockey would not be a part of his future. Now, he is ready for whatever the future holds.
"To be honest, I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," Oulahen said. "Maybe I wasn't supposed to play hockey, maybe I was meant to do something else."
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