OHL Suspends Flint Firebirds Management

The situation with the OHL’s Flint Firebirds continues to be closer to circus camp than major junior hockey.

On Wednesday Flint owner Rolf Nilsen fired coaches John Gruden and Dave Karpa for the second time this season.

The team made headlines earlier this season when Nilsen fired Gruden and Karpa the first time. Reports at that time indicated the reason for Gruden’s dismissal was that he wasn’t giving Nilsen’s son, a defenseman for the Firebirds, enough ice time.

When the players were informed of Gruden’s dismissal, they walked out. The OHL and commissioner David Branch had to step in. They forced Nilsen to reinstate the coaches, who received three-year contract extensions after being reinstated.

Second Chances

This second firing of the same coaches in a single season has commissioner Branch stepping into the battle once again. “This change, the manner in which it occurred and the way it was communicated to the players and the league is of great concern,” Branch said via a release in the immediate aftermath of the firing.

Nilsen appears to have learned lessons from the first firing, as no one on the inside is saying much and it’s not yet clear what lead to this second dismissal.

Branch was headed to Flint on Thursday, where the team is scheduled to play the Erie Otters. In addition to going there himself and releasing a statement Wednesday, Branch has announced three sanctions against team management that are effective immediately.

– Mr. Nilsen and his appointees on the management and coaching staff including Sergei Kharin are suspended from Flint Firebirds’ hockey operations until further notice;
– The Flint Firebirds at their cost, under the direction of the League, shall provide counselling [sic] services for players;
– Rolf Nilsen and representatives of the Flint Firebirds shall co-operate with the Commissioner and the League in investigations into the conduct and actions of the Flint Firebirds and its representatives, employees, officers and directors

The initial statement makes it apparent that the move by Nilsen blindsided the OHL, again. The sanctions make it clear that the OHL is in serious damage control mode and isn’t happy with how Nilsen is handling the team in his first year as owner of the former Plymouth Whalers.

Moving Forward

That’s fair. In a league where players aren’t paid, it is incumbent on the league and team management to help create positive situations for the players, both developmentally and on a personal level. That has not been the case in Flint. The father of Will Bitten, Flint’s leading scorer and a 2016 draft eligible, made that clear in an interview with The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell.

In the interview Bitten says his son “went through a depression” during the season and that nothing has improved since the first firing. “I spoke with David Branch tonight and I told him that nothing had improved, that the owner continued to do things that were making it difficult for the coaching staff and that stress level gets passed on to the kids,” he told Campbell. That begins to explain, to some extent, why the OHL has required that Flint provide “counseling services” for players.

As far as the team’s immediate present, no walkout was planned. However, at a captain’s practice Wednesday the team determined that they were not interested in playing for Sergei Kharin, who informed the team of the firing of Gruden, according to Campbell’s article.

While no walkout was planned, their refusal to play for Kharin meant that no players showed up for morning skate Thursday except for Hakon Nilsen, son of the team’s owner. He “left the arena in street clothes shortly after 11 a.m., when the practice was scheduled to begin,” reports TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

Seravalli later reported that Flint assistant GM Joe Stefan will coach the team against Erie on Thursday. Players are scheduled to meet with Branch prior to the game at 5pm.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the OHL’s senior director of hockey operations Joe Birch will take over hockey operations for the Firebirds for the present. Birch will be on the bench when the Firebirds take on the Otters, but Stefan will be the head coach. He will be assisted by former NHLer Pat Peake.