Quick on his feet, Ryan Oulahen uses his smooth-skating abilities to kill penalties and increase the tempo of the game
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Ryan Oulahen was only seven years old when Lance Armstrong began his professional cycling career.
Even so, Oulahen has found inspiration in the story of a world-class athlete who first beat cancer and then the odds to win the Tour de France not once but seven times. It’s Not About the Bike
, Armstrong’s personal account of his battle with cancer and his journey to becoming a champion, struck a chord with Oulahen, who continues to list the book as his favorite.
“He showed unbelievable determination and courage,” Oulahen said. “He never gave up no matter what people said. He just knew he was going to get better and that he had something special. And when he became amazing, he gave so much back to the fight against cancer.
“He’s a huge hero.”
Armstrong’s story resonates with the Grand Rapids Griffins forward, who overcame a serious neck injury suffered during the 2003-04 hockey season while playing for Brampton in the OHL.
“It was a freak accident – I got hit in the open ice and my head snapped,” he recalled. “They took me off on a stretcher. I didn’t really know what was going on. I had numbness in my hands.”
Oulahen remembers laying flat on his back in the hospital for several hours, waiting for the results of tests and X-rays. “I didn’t know what the doctors were thinking, but it was pretty serious at the time,” he said.
“It’s something I just want to forget.”
Although he had herniated a disk in his neck, the injury was not as serious as doctors feared. He missed five weeks, then battled his way back into playing form.
It’s the greatest personal obstacle the 21-year-old Oulahen has had to overcome during his young career, which, if he were to put it into writing, might be called <i>It’s Not About the Points</i>.
As one of the top defensive forwards in Grand Rapids, Oulahen knows that goals and assists are bonuses. His focus is preventing the opposition from putting the puck into the net.
Every team needs role players, and Griffins head coach Greg Ireland appreciates Oulahen’s contributions.
“Penalty killers like Ryan are guys whose skills go unrecognized at times because they’re very quiet in their approach – very diligent and very hard-working,” Ireland said.
“When you don’t put up the high number of points every year, you may not get the glory, but at the end of the day, guys like Ryan end up helping you win games and championships.”
Oulahen has no qualms about being a checking forward. “When I was a little tyke, I was a defenseman, so playing a defensive style just comes naturally to me,” he said. “I knew to be a pro, I was going to have to work to my strengths and be a great penalty killer.”
Truth be told, he was just happy to get a chance to play. A healthy scratch in five of the Griffins’ first nine games a year ago, Oulahen never missed another game, appearing in 71 straight contests during the regular season and all 16 playoff games.
“Anytime you’re not playing, you get a little frustrated,” he said, “but everything was new to me off the ice. I was living on my own, getting settled into an apartment, and, for the first time, coming to the rink every day like a job.
“I knew I had to be patient and my time would come. When it did, I jumped on it and never looked back.”
Oulahen registered nine goals and 10 assists in 75 games during his rookie pro season, one-third of the totals he tallied a year earlier in 11 fewer games during his final year of junior hockey.
The true value of a player, however, cannot be measured only in terms of points.
“Ryan’s accountable within his role,” Ireland said. “He’s a professional, a person of high character who works hard. He understands his role and the nuances within it. He takes a lot of pride in his game.”
Indeed, Oulahen knows he needs to exploit his strengths as a player. He may not be a natural goal scorer, but that only means he has to try harder to do the little things to help the team.
“If I’m out there killing an important penalty and we get the job done, I see that as something just as special as the guy putting the puck into the net,” he said. “My satisfaction comes out of us winning.”
Last season provided Oulahen with plenty of chances to feel good about his contributions. The Griffins captured the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular season champions.
“It was an unbelievable year,” Oulahen said. “To tell you the truth, it being my first year, I probably took it for granted. I might never get the chance to experience that again in my entire career.
“Looking back on it now, I wish I realized how special it was.”
As a fresh-faced rookie, Oulahen tried to soak up as much as he could. He did his best to follow the lead of players like Matt Ellis, the Griffins’ captain and noted overachiever.
“His work ethic is second to none. Just the way he prepares himself off the ice is something to look up to,” Oulahen said of Ellis, with whom he has become close.
Oulahen hopes to build on the foundation he set during his rookie season. “I want to improve my game and help this team go as far as we possibly can,” he said. “Everyone’s goal is to win that Calder Cup – that’s what we’re here for.”
Ireland thinks the only thing that separates Oulahen from playing in the NHL is having an edge.
“He needs to play with a little more meanness,” Ireland said. “When he hits the ice, he needs to play like he’s wrapped in barbed wire.
“He’s a strong kid already, but he needs to be the kind of player who is running into as many people as he can. Guys should want to avoid him.”
The Griffins are confident that Oulahen is up to the task. “He understands the game well,” Ireland said, “and he takes the opportunity and time to understand it better.”
Ireland can see a difference this year already.
“As his responsibilities increase, so does his confidence,” Ireland said. “I think the more that we give him, the more he will excel.”
Oulahen has worked hard at improving his skills from almost the time he began to skate.
The youngest of three children (he has an older brother and older sister), he always had the total support of his parents, Jim and Kathy Oulahen.
“My father’s influence was huge. We lived in Newmarket, about 45 minutes north of Toronto. I played minor hockey in Toronto, so three or four nights a week my dad, who worked in the city, would drive home from work to pick me up and then make the 45-minute drive back just to get me to practice.
“I think he only missed one or two practices all year and that was because he was a teacher and he sometimes had interviews he couldn’t miss. Otherwise, he was there for every game, every practice.”
His father still follows his career closely.
“To this day, I know he watches or listens to every game on the Internet. He tries to get down to our games as much as possible. Whenever we’re within two hours of home, he’s there.”
Oulahen is thankful for the encouragement.
“I’m not a guy who likes to talk a lot about hockey outside the rink, so my dad picks and chooses when to say something. He never does it in a negative way. He always compliments, left, right and center.”
Family is important to Oulahen, who spends a good part of the offseason at a cottage on Red Pine Lake, a remote getaway near Haliburton, Ontario.
“My mom grew up there as a kid, so it’s not just my immediate family, but my mom’s side of the family, too. The cottage has five owners, so it’s all my cousins and aunts and uncles. It’s a huge family tradition.”
It’s the very definition of remote. “There are maybe 40-50 cottages, but there are no roads. We literally have to boat in. You drive to a dam and then it’s about a 15-minute boat ride to get there,” he said.
“There is no electricity, no running water, no central heating. But you can do everything there: waterskiing, fishing, hiking, windsurfing and a lot of swimming.”
Oulahen typically spend four or five weekends of his summer at the family cottage. As far as he’s concerned, it’s the ideal place to recharge his batteries for another season.
“It’s a neat thing being a hockey player so I can have summers off and I can enjoy that side of life. It’s an amazing place – I love it so much that I look forward to it every year.”
There’s only one place that Oulahen would like to be more. And you can be sure that he’s working as hard as he can to get to the NHL as soon as he can.