Discussing hot button issues is not the path that I generally choose to follow largely because these topics are debated at nauseum with a million different opinions streaming across the World Wide Web. I try to differentiate myself whilst examining stories and thoughts that don't get the required attention needed, ie my thoughts towards why Yovani Gallardo's off-season value is being overlooked etc etc. This Ontario Hockey League fiasco involving the Flint Firebirds, while already having been picked up by national media outlets is fascinating enough that I will attempt to eloquently maneuver through the evolution of events from the beginning of this whirlwind on November 8th,2015 to the present where the Firebirds have recently resurfaced.
To follow a sequential chain of events, before the aforementioned, for the lack of a better word we'll consider a gongshow that transpired on the eighth of November when the relocated Firebirds, previously residing in Plymouth were pitted against the defending Memorial Cup Champions Oshawa Generals. Flint going into the season was projected as a fringe playoff team at best, a likely non playoff entity as what usually happens when assessing a re-located team is they favour a reboot, aim to get younger to allow not only the young nucleus to grow and bond together but to allow the fresh, unopinionated fan base to grow the with the team as well and ideally watch them transition into a contender. The tampered expectations for this Firebird squad came to fruition as a slow start marred the opening 1/4 of the season so as you can surmise, heading into this game against Oshawa, a team mind you that was converting their own version of a rebuild after a glorious 2014/2015 campaign which saw them reach the pinnacle was still the overwhelming favourite in the game. A slow start hampered the Firebirds finding themselves sulking through a 3-1 detriment, but the upmost resilience was shown and perseverance found, they tied the game and what has become crap shoot, pond hockey three on three overtime across all leagues, the Firebirds sealed the deal scoring the overtime winner. Without recollecting any fond memories of the highlights, the fact is that the result is a very inconsequential side bar to more developing events that in retrospect would shake the climate of junior hockey.
In hockey, in sport, winning is usually followed by jubilation and celebration, positive vibes all around. Owner Rolf Nilson had different intents that evening as simmering discontent pertaining to the relationship between himself and the coaching staff was festering with the most glaring disagreement involving the lack of ice time his son(having a son on the team is a guaranteed recipe for success, right?) Hakon was receiving. After a win amidst the celebratory attitude that surely was present in the locker room, the abrupt and controversial rash decision was formulated, Nilson fired the coaches. Head Coach John Gruden(not the Hall of Fame Football Coach) and Associate, former Anaheim Mighty Duck and Regina native Dave Karpa were immediately no longer affiliated with the organization. Jubilation quickly translated to anger and a firestorm was about to ensue in Firebird county.
It should be noted that although young, the Firebirds were privy to marquee players including Alex Nedeljkovic, who was the starting goaltender for the American entry at this past winter's World Junior Hockey Championship and Josh Wesley,a Carolina Hurricanes prospect more notably known for being Hurricane great defenceman Glen's son are fully fledged National Hockey League prospects and those two, reportedly entrenched in the Flint leadership group led an exodus in a revolt against Nilson's decision and initiated a player strike and as a team would voluntarily skip practice the following day and drop their jerseys in front of the owner's office that is a made for the movies type of event. The revolt was in order and now the ball was in the Ontario Hockey League's court on how they were going to proceed and rectify this tomfoolery that ownership had created.
The following day, or quite possibly the day after, irrelevant to the point at hand after summoning an urgent investigation, it was determined that Nilson acted hastefully and in a way to appease the players, coach Gruden and Karpa were re-instated. With the popular decision amongst the players to haul back in the coaches, and for those who aren't aware a coach like John Gruden brings with him a substantial pedigree as he's worked extensively with the U.S National Team Development program, so this wasn't any Joe Schmo off the street. I maintain, and my opinion only that the fact that Gruden is only working in Major Jnnior when taking into account his reputable resume, he's selling himself short by not coaching professionally somewhere, the players agreed to end the very brief strike, if you even want to call it that and them along with their old coach, came back to work. As part of the findings of the investigaton, CHL commissioner David Branch reached a settlement between Gruden/Karpa and Nilson that required that the two coaches in question were rewarded with three year extensions. If you continue reading on, the contractually solidified coaches was just smoke and mirrors as we soon learn that the unpopular owner beats to his own drum.
After a couple months of inactivity, which during that time Flint was suffering, not just through the water crisis but also through a fifteen game losing streak. The on ice product was becoming historically inept, and something had to change, but after the fifteenth consecutive loss, nothing did, business as usual continued on. Now here's where this much maligned story becomes a tad murky, in sport whether we're analying professional or amateur, and to focus on amateur because that's the premise of this article, two things are paramount, winning and development. The coaches based on past circumstance always looking behind their back can't do the developmental aspect any favours as how can you teach kids when you're in constant paranoia about your own job safety. The winning wasn't happening either particularly during the already specified fifteen game skid. If Nilson would've elected to change the hockey operation staff then he would've had justifiable reasoning, reasoning that commissioner Branch wouldn't construe as sketchy behaviour because the proof was in the pudding. Fast forward to the week of February 17th, the illadvised skid a thing of distant memory, Rolf Nilsen and the Firebirds found themselves in the news again for get this, the Norwegian born owner disobeyed the previously agreed upon guidelines and fired Gruden and Karpa again! It's ironic this team plays in Flint as isn't this something the Will Ferell lead Flint Tropics(Semi-Pro analogy) would've endeavoured into? Gruden and Karpa canned again, what o what would Dave Branch do?
From here, to my best understanding are the chain of events. Gruden and Karpa gone with no chance of re-entering the fold, and I mean can you really blame them, Nilson then names a close friend of his Sergei Khairin(probably butchered the spelling) who although did play briefly for the Winnipeg Jets has no coaching experience to the research I've done and has been a long time car salesman in the floundering Michigan economy as interim coach. In an absolutely brilliant maneuver we now have a clueless hockey mind controlling kids who parents have entrusted this organization with to oversee their development in the ever important teenage years. Khairin is now the bench boss of the Firebirds, or is he? In comes to the rescue....again...sir David Branch, a name that I'm overstating repeatedly in this article as by now he's wondering how he ever signed off on this deal handing one of his babies to the incompetent Rolf Nilson.
After the news broke again pertaining to Gruden's second firing, Branch along with other entrusted members of the Board of Governors met in Flint to urgently attempt to rectify the situation as a game was to take place against the first place Erie Otters the following day. After a brief review meeting with some of the players and others pertinent to the dealings, the punishment from Branch was quickly administered, Nilson suspended indefinitely, the car salesman Khairin relieved of his premature interim tag, and the Ontario Hockey League instituting a new hockey operations regime for the remainder of the season.
So what next, and what can be done to disallow this type of comedy from happening again? I have a few suggestions on how to control meddling from those corruptly in power but first let's examine the direction the Firebirds could be headed. After the 2014/2015 campaign, two franchises were in peril and relocation took place, the aforementioned Plymouth to Flint and the long serving Belleville Bulls were shipped over to Hamilton which was more surprising to me when accounting for the storied Belleville junior hockey history. From what I'm led to believe, and if I'm way off base I sincerely apologize although the longer you follow the blog, me being off base could be construed as a norm, is is that the Belleville ownership group didn't necessarily want to relocate, it was caused by infighting betweenst the city of Belleville and ownership over the need of a new arena. The city and provincial government refused to fund a new arena which was the last straw for those privy to negotiations, the home of Kent Austin they went. Clearly Belleville wants a Ontario League franchise back, and can we for a minute celebrate how nice those Bull uniforms were, with the only great Val'dor Foreurs rivalling them in design. Can Belleville's Yardmen arena, opened in 1978 still be suitable for a Major Junior team. I don't see why not, the roof isn't leaking, the structure is still approved to host events and most importantly the fan base is a consistent bunch that would come in spades if they were once again granted a franchise. Relocating this franchise back to Belleville with no real good grasp on how such a move would geographically effect the divisional alignment is the most logical. The city has played host to some of the NHL's greats, including P.K Subban, Al "Mullet man" Iafrate, and Marty McSorley and it's clinging to hope that this discontent in Flint are the pocket aces needed in bringing hockey back to this population of approximately 50,000. If going back to Belleville isn't something that interests the league of the city council, option number two is a troubling alternative, something that the league is sweating and that's folding the franchise. The issue at hand, and I'm sure reading this you'll ascertain asto why the OHL can't find another owner to keep the team in Flint, in a perfect world that sounds wonderful but when the current owner lays claim to also owning the hockey center in Flint, that all but cancels out this hypothetical scenario. Unless Nilson wants to save face with a franchise he's near ruined and if you're forming an opinion based off events taken place this season that seems to be out of character as respect for the league has been non-existent from his end. Folding is tough on all parties, it's a loss of jobs and in the world that we live in where finding employment is tenious at best, handing out pink slips to hard working, passionate individuals are meetings no one wants to administer. The city spent essentially all of early 2015 preparing themselves for a junior hockey franchise and all that prosperity seems to be short lived.
Mentioned at the beginning of the previous paragraph, the question I posed was if this is preventable? You better believe it is! A comment that was repeated on several facebook posts in regards to the statement issued and in perusing forms, the consensus delivered is leagues should restrict the owner and or General Manager from having family on the team to avoid nepotism. I recripocate these values as when assessing league intregity, we can't have preferential treatment creep into the locker room which exactly was the cause of this cluster to begin with. Rolf Nilson bought the team for one sole intent, not to finally fulfill a lifelong dream of owning a sports franchise but to pave a way to the Ontario Hockey League for his Junior B calibre son. Its' been reported that these issues were brought up during the interview process involving Gruden and when Branch was researching the legitimacy of the ownership bid. At the end of the day, the league has a sock on their mouth because blame Nilson all you want, it was their decision to hand them the franchise, they're the ones liable for all the transgressions committed. More complete due diligence is needed, an obvious thought but one the parties involved should've spent more time throughout the preliminary stages.
Flint Firebirds, or Flint Firestorm, either way the stay in Michigan will be cut short. Bring back the Tropics!