The Flint Firebirds are becoming the focus of the junior hockey world, and not for a good reason. The team, based in Flint, Michigan, is a member of the Ontario Hockey League, is suffering due to their owner’s questionable ethics and decision-making. To explain their dilemma, flashback to November.
The Firebirds are in their first season as an OHL franchise under their present name, after the relocation and renaming of the Plymouth (Michigan) Whalers. In November, roughly two months into the OHL season, their owner Rolf Nilsen fired the coaching staff. The reason cited by multiple outlets is his son’s, Håkon Nilsen, ice time. At the time, Hakon had only played five of the Firebirds’ 17 games.
Håkon is a rookie defenseman for the Firebirds. After the firing of the coaches, the players, including Håkon, quit the team. The team reinstated the coaches the following evening after they were fired. The following is the Firebirds statement regarding the situation in November.
Last night, after our emotional shootout game against the Oshawa Generals, I made a decision with regards to our coaching staff, which was an irresponsible mistake.
This morning, we took steps to immediately reinstate the coaches. Today, the team’s senior leadership met with the players to apologize and have a very frank discussion about next steps leading to a resolution.
Ontario Hockey League Commissioner David Branch has been in Flint this afternoon and evening meeting with all parties involved. We are fully cooperating with this OHL investigation and we will look to their leadership to help us continue to grow as a team.
The Flint Firebirds’ management remains committed to providing the best hockey experience for our players, our fans and the Flint & Genesee County community. (Detroit Free Press)
The sentiment of Rolf Nilsen’s statement did not last long though, as he repeated his actions and fired his coaching staff again on Feb. 17. The Firebirds announced the staffing change on their website in a brief statement, saying that Head Coach John Gruden and Assistant Coach Dave Karpa “have been relieved from their duties effective immediately.” ( Flint Firebirds)
The OHL has stepped in to investigate the situation, and has suspended Rolf Nilsen, the Firebirds’ management and the new coaches that have hired, including Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Sergei Kharin. The OHL released the following statement:
The Ontario League takes the health and well being of our players very seriously. The recent actions by the owner of the Flint Firebirds Rolf Nilsen and his representatives on the management team and coaching staff is of great concern as they pose a serious threat to our commitment to our players and their families.
The league announces the following sanctions 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 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;
In addition, the League will continue to investigate the actions of Rolf Nilsen and other representatives of the Flint Firebirds and will take any action and impose any sanctions that are deemed appropriate by the Commissioner.
Later today, the League will be meeting with the players in Flint to further discuss the situation, and to ensure that they are provided the appropriate supports. These discussions and supports will be ongoing for the players and their families. (Yahoo! Sports)
The OHL is taking the matter very seriously and are investigating the Firebirds owner and management thoroughly. The OHL’s commissioner, David Branch commented on the matter in the following statement:
“It has come to the league’s attention that the Flint Firebirds ownership has once again made significant changes to their coaching staff. This change, the manner in which it occurred and the way it was communicated to the players and to the league is of great concern.
“We have been in contact with the team captain and it is our intention to meet and communicate with all players and families in short order. The players and their playing experience is of the utmost importance to the league and we will continue to work to ensure that they are treated with respect.
“It is the league’s intention to immediately review the actions of the Flint Firebirds before we determine the next steps we will take to address this situation. (Yahoo! Sports)
The investigation by the OHL will affect the Firebirds’ organization greatly. As it continues, the actions of their seemingly irresponsible decision-making will negatively affect the players the most, impeding their development and reputation. The players might want to ask Rolf Nilsen or the OHL, “are we Firebirds or what?”