How Eric Wellwood has transitioned his tragically brief on-ice pro-hockey career to helming the Newfoundland Growlers on their road back to the Kelly Cup
The vacancy of the head coaching position left in the wake of the exit of Kelly Cup winner John Snowden loomed large for the Newfoundland Growlers ahead of the 2020-21 season.
Eric Wellwood, a pro-player turned rising coach in North America, just may be the man to fill those lofty shoes.
Brother of former St. John’s Maple Leaf and NHL vet Kyle Wellwood, Eric’s on ice career – which included two straight Memorial Cup victories with his hometown Windsor Spitfires and over three-dozen games with the Philadelphia Flyers – was tragically cut short by-way of a freak accident on April 7, 2013.
Transitioning from the ice to the bench, and Wellwood would become a sought-after coach in his own right, first as an assistant with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, and later as an assistant and then head coach of the Flint Firebirds, where he would lead the club to their franchise best season.
Taking up head coaching duties with the ECHL’s Growlers, we sat down with the 31-year-old prospect of the game, talking life after the ice, his connection to Newfoundland and Labrador, lofty expectations and much more! This, is coach’s playbook with Eric Wellwood.
DISCOVERING THE ROCK
I was (in St. John’s) for a week playing the Marlies when I played. But I mean I’ve been to a lot of cities where I see hotel rooms and I see the arena and that’s about it. Other than that, I guess my wife, every single day for the past six years, she shows me Gros Morne National Park because we like to go hiking every once in a while. That’s the other thing I know and obviously now I’ve been doing a little bit more research on the province, but I can’t say that I really know it.
REGAINING THE KELLY CUP
Yeah, I think making the decision that (regaining a title the team never lost) factored in. I think it’s always difficult. Like for instance, when I took over in Flint, I think the only thing that you could have was success with how bad it had been at that particular time. So the pressure wasn’t really there. It was more time where I can just get to know myself as a coach, which I think takes time, where this situation is the polar opposite.
You know, going to the former champion team, I’m suspecting we’ll have a good team again as well to try to defend that. But that’s the challenge that I was looking for. I think the city, it’s nice to be in an organization and a city that expects to win. I was apart of that in Windsor. Not my first year, but our second year winning the Memorial Cup, we essentially had basically the same nucleus going back. And you had that expectation that we’re going to go win again. And I think it’s a privilege to have that pressure and I’m fortunate that I get to live in that moment again.
FROM PLAYER TO COACH
I think as I get older … and I mean, I’m still very young, so it’s not like I have a lot of life experience. But I have noticed, especially since I became the head coach of Flint, when I went into the dressing room the very first time and it felt like, not to sound morbid, but I’ve been to funerals that are more lively. These kids were just devastated. To see the impact that you can have to provide a positive experience for them. I still keep in touch with a lot of my players. And I think as I’ve been getting older, I appreciate it a lot more.
And I think when I first got into coaching I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I think I was so focused on just being a hockey player. And like you said, it just got taken away from you instantaneously. You didn’t go out on your own accord, or you didn’t have an impact on it in the sense of if you weren’t playing well enough then you just lose your job. That would be on you. And I’d have to live with that.
So when it all happened, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life … But I think as I’m getting older, I’m appreciating it a lot more, the impact it can have on these people. I don’t really look at them as hockey players, I look at them as people that are trying to accomplish something that’s extremely difficult to do. And you know, to be a part of that process in a positive way, I think it’s a lot more fulfilling in my life than it was doing it as a player.
THE LEAFS ORGANIZATION
Well, I guess it’s obvious. It’s great to be a part of it and it’s great to be a part of people that in my mind are willing to take risks. I think you are taking a risk here. At times people will just take somebody with experience because of that experience and that’s a safe bet.
I’m not sure how much you know, but the Windsor Spitfire job was up, which is my hometown team that I played for and grew up watching and I was in the running for that job. And when this opportunity came I took myself out of the Windsor job, which is something that in my lifetime I hope I get to do just because I realize this is a better spot to be. And it’s an opportunity where they really help people grow. And that’s all I’m looking for.
I’m not looking to advance my career. I don’t really have aspirations to get anywhere other than just helping the guys. But I guess my aspirations are personal growth. And this is an organization that really puts an emphasis on that. And that’s exactly what I wanted to be a part of. So I feel very fortunate that they took a risk on me, and hopefully their risk pays off.
In the minor league pros there’s so much turnaround. To have the same nucleus come back, they already know what it takes to get to the top of the mountain. They’re great people. It’s no surprise to me how they got to the top, just the brief conversations that I’ve had with them and the interactions that I’ve had with them. And I think it’s extremely important.
They know the city. They can help the younger guys that are coming down to us, whoever they may be, and help me get those individuals to the next level and help that individual. So I think it’s extremely important that these guys are back and I’m looking forward to working with them.
THE WELLWOOD FAMILY
We obviously became a hockey family. But my parents don’t really watch it unless we’re the ones playing. They don’t know anybody on the roster too much. They don’t really pay attention to that. We had a backyard rink that my dad would build. Now, that wasn’t for us to become hockey players, that was just because we grew up in the county and had the space. And you know, why not? We definitely didn’t grow up in a hockey family. We didn’t grow up in a family that pushed us, I should say.
I think we fell in love with the game at our backyard rink. And I don’t want to say hockey is my love. I think sport and competition is my love. It just so happened that hockey was a sport that I chose and I think I could say the same about my brother.
I know where I want this team to go. And I just always have that at the forefront of my mind. Every day it’s just working towards that goal, and I got to learn that lesson becoming a pro-hockey player, because I had to do it the hard way. I was in Windsor. I didn’t make it my first year drafted. I got to play halfway through but as a fourth liner. The next year, again, I played a fourth line role, did not get drafted.
Oddly enough I did get an invite to the Maple Leafs training camp, so I did participate in that. I knew that I wanted to get to the NHL and I knew that was the goal. And it’s little steps every day that you try to take towards that goal.
You can’t run a marathon until you run the first mile and then the second mile and so on. And just having that realization that we want to bring the team to a certain point and to a certain competitive level and get to where we want to get to. But that’s what you’re working towards every single day and just know that you can’t get there tomorrow. Even if you do think that you’re there, that you never arrive until you actually arrive and you’ll know when you arrive. And that’s when the season’s over, hopefully you’re the last team standing.
For tickets and more information on all things Newfoundland Growlers visit nlgrowlers.com