The story of the Flint Firebirds had a rocky beginning.
From ownership and coaching controversies that led to the team being placed under Ontario Hockey League stewardship, Flint wasn’t the destination of choice for many prospects looking to chase their professional hockey dream.
But for Ty Dellandrea, who was the club’s first pick after that inaugural season, that rocky start represented the opportunity to be a part of something great.
“I wouldn’t say there was nerves,” said Dellandrea, 27th in Future Considerations’ Fall ranking for the 2018 NHL Draft.
“The biggest thing is that [my family] knew that I was going to be in good hands after what had happened. We just knew the OHL wasn’t going to put us in any harm and that it was going to be a good place. I wanted to be a part of the turnaround — and get it back going.”
In his rookie season last year, Dellandrea had 13 goals and 24 points in 57 games.
This year, he’s on a point-per-game pace, with six goals and six assists in 17 games.
He’s been a leader both on the ice and off, too.
“I think last year was a great year to develop. You come into that [rookie] year and there’s no real expectations on you — it’s kind of your free year to learn and grow,” he said. “Now you come into this year and you have the expectation that you’re going to make an impact. Going into those international experiences, I learned a lot, and the hard work I put in the summer has worked at the start.”
Those international experiences included winning gold at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in August.
Dellandrea said it was a great opportunity for him to learn valuable leadership and game skills.
“You get to learn off a lot of great players,” he said. “To play at a stage that high — you’re picking little pieces off their game and you try to add it to yours. It’s a good confidence booster as you go into a big season. It really showed me how close the difference is to win something like that. It gave me a good view of what it takes to win.
“As a group that group was full of leaders — top to bottom. They all go back to their home teams and they’re strong leaders. Just picking apart their brains and learning stuff like that. Being able to learn from that and bring it to my home team was great.”
Dellandrea said his experience last year in the league showed he needed to get bigger — something he worked on over the summer.
His head coach, Ryan Oulahen, said he’s seen the results early in this campaign.
“I think he just plays with a lot of confidence,” Oulahen said. “The big thing year to year, especially when you have these guys coming in at 16, is the evolution of them getting bigger and stronger. That’s certainly helped him.
“He’s now able to win a lot of puck battles, be hard on the puck. He’s got a great shot and he’s been an offensive threat for us, but he’s also been a good two-way center that we depend upon defensively as well.”
Dellandrea said that he models his game after Jonathan Toews, who he says “plays the best complete game in the NHL.”
Instead of shying away from the comparison, Oulahen embraces it.
“I do. I think that’s a good comparison for him,” he admitted. “I think he’s the ultimate competitor. He’s a leader by example type, much like Jonathan Toews does. I just think that he’s got that extra little gear — when push comes to shove, he gets it done.
“Sometimes it’s not the guys who are the biggest, the strongest, the fastest — it’s the guys who have that will and that extra gear. I think Ty has that.”
Oulahen said he’s pleased with Dellandrea’s progression, but — like all players — there are areas where he can work.
That’s the challenge for his young prospect.
“For him, it’s just getting quicker,” Oulahen said. “He’s got to have a little bit more of that elusive speed. He’s a guy that loves to lug the puck and when you get that extra little step with speed and separate yourself from the pack, then he can use his natural-given abilities to see players, see the ice, and make plays.
“He’s got a great shot — that’s one of his best things. When he gets moving, he’s really really strong and tough to stop, but those first couple of steps are probably his key thing.”
He’ll get the chance to develop those skills with Flint, a solid drive from his hometown of Port Perry, ON.
It’s made his family as committed to the Firebirds as he is.
“It’s a bit different,” Dellandrea admitted. “I like it because you’re away from home, but you get to come home and visit and still travel to places in Canada, where you’re familiar.
“[Port Perry is] about a five-and-a-half-hour drive. My parents come down a lot, watch games, and then head for the week.
“They’re pretty committed to it, so it’s good.”