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Once A Protector, Always A Protector

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

On the ice, Ryan Flinn made his name by being a protector, by coming to the aid of those in need. Off the ice, not much has changed. The same job skills roughly apply.

Flinn, who filled the heavyweight ``enforcer’’ role in the Kings organization from 2001-06 and survived a scary head injury, is now thriving as a firefighter in Surprise, Ariz.

Flinn’s transition from fire to ice is a rare, and needed, happy story in a summer of tragedy within the hockey world, a summer filled with the deaths of former NHL players. Flinn not only left the sport on his own terms, but he has found a fulfilling second life.

After he decided to retire from hockey at the end of the 2009-10 season, Flinn began an 18-month journey that, in August, culminated with his graduation from the fire academy, his completion of a 13-week training program and his hiring by the Surprise Fire Dept.

"I was very fortunate to land on my feet and have such a great opportunity," Flinn said this week. "It’s an awesome second career."

While the venues and clothing are different, Flinn, 31, has found quite a few similarities.

The physical fitness that served Flinn so well in hockey -- he was a mountain of a player, at 6-foot-5 and more than 225 pounds -- is much-needed now as he lugs 50 pounds of equipment (often more) for long distances and up flights of stairs.

The camaraderie that is so important on the ice is magnified in the firehouse, where those on the same crew spend 24 consecutive hours together. In this job, good teamwork isn’t a matter of wins and losses, it can be a matter of life and death.

"We run four or five guys on a truck and it’s definitely a team," Flinn said. "We eat together, we hang out, we clean together, we train together, we go on calls together. I’m learning a lot from the guys who have been on the job for three or four years, to my captain, who has been on the job for 18 years."

Becoming a firefighter is just the latest dramatic change in Flinn’s life.

After four years in the junior-level QMJHL -- he was drafted by New Jersey in 1998 but didn’t sign -- Flinn started out in the ECHL in 2001. Flinn quickly made his name, with 120 penalty minutes in 20 games, and was signed by the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs.

Just 37 games into his AHL stint, Flinn got the call from the Kings, meaning he had risen from junior hockey to the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL in less than one calendar year.

Flinn spent 10 games with the Kings in 2001-02 and split the next season between the Kings and Monarchs. Flinn stayed with Manchester for the 2003-04 season and, during the NHL lockout, the 2004-05 season, but got another NHL chance in 2005.

With injured enforcer George Parros out of the lineup, Flinn got the call and dressed for the Kings’ Nov. 26 home game against Chicago. Flinn wasted no time in getting involved, as he dropped the gloves with Jim Vandermeer in the first period.

The heavyweights exchanged fierce swings before Vandermeer caught Flinn with a right hand. As Flinn stumbled down, his helmet was accidentally knocked off by Vandermeer’s elbow just before Flinn’s head struck the ice surface at full speed.

Flinn was unconscious for an unknown period of time and left the ice via stretcher.

"I’m able to watch it [on video], and it’s come up where I’ve had to watch it a couple times," Flinn said. "I definitely don’t dwell on it or look at it very often. There are a lot of other videos I’d rather watch on YouTube than that one.

"It’s part of the story, part of who I am. It happened. I don’t truly remember it. I only remember it because of the fact that I’ve seen it on TV or on the computer."

Before long, Flinn was able to resume normal activities, but his recovery from a serious concussion prevented him from getting back on the ice for the rest of the 2005-06 season. It would be the end of his NHL career but, fortunately, not his hockey career.

In the summer of 2006, Flinn signed with San Antonio of the AHL, starting a four-year minor-league journey that also took him through Springfield, Mass., Hershey, Penn., Hamilton, Ontario, and Rockford, Ill., where he played 20 games in 2009-10.

At that point, Flinn decided he had done enough. A wife, Danielle, and a young daughter waited at home in Arizona while Flinn traveled the continent playing minor-league hockey. Having spent a decade in pro hockey, and having proven that he could come back from a devastating injury, Flinn left on his own terms in the spring of 2010.

"I’m definitely glad I was able to come back and play those four more years and that I was healthy enough," Flinn said. "At that point in my life, I wouldn’t have been ready for a change. ... That might have been a situation where I didn’t know what to do."

At just 30 years old, and with a family to support, Flinn needed a plan, and also knew it would be important to have a plan, to avoid the type of post-career depression that some athletes fall into when their playing days end and their lifestyles change.

Why firefighting? The seeds had been sowed in Rockford, when Flinn went on ride-along trips with a local ambulance company.

Knowing that he wasn’t likely to spend much more time riding buses in the AHL, Flinn talked to his wife and decided that he would enroll in classes toward receiving an EMT certificate, the first step toward becoming a firefighter.

"Playing in the American Hockey League, it’s a great opportunity and it’s a great league, but it’s just not what I wanted to continue to do," Flinn said.

"I think it was important that I had a [post-hockey] goal in mind. It took a year and a half, from the time I left hockey to being able to be hired, which is definitely fairly quick. When I left hockey, I started school right away, I knew what I wanted to do and I kept my eye on the prize. I approached it the same way I approached my hockey career. I took it seriously, I worked hard for what I wanted and I was able to attain the goal."

Now, instead of having his work life revolve around morning skates and evening games, Flinn keeps a very different schedule. At the firehouse, he works a 24-hour shift, then is off for the next 48 hours.

At any moment, a call could come that puts Flinn in a life-threatening situation, but Flinn remains nothing but grateful for his chance to serve his neighbors. Surprise is a suburb located approximately 25 miles northwest of Phoenix.

"In the short time I’ve been involved with meeting people in the fire services, it’s given me and my wife a definite sense of belonging to the community in the Phoenix area," Flinn said.
Not that Flinn has escaped some good-natured razzing from his colleagues because of his hockey-playing background.

"I’m a rookie, so they definitely have fun with the fact that I play hockey and all that kind of stuff," Flinn said. "I happened to see one of my hockey cards at the station the other day. They found one somewhere. They’re having fun with it."

Perhaps, though, if Flinn’s fellow firefighters browse through YouTube and see him pummeling some heavyweights on the ice, they’ll be a bit more gentle with the teasing.

"I’m sure they’ve seen them all," Flinn said of his fighting highlights. "They’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly."

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