The Flint Firebirds have dealt with their fair share of problems in their first season since relocating the Ontario Hockey League from Plymouth.
Owner Rolf Nilsen fired his coaching staff on two separate occasions, prompting the league to take over control of the team's hockey operations in February.
Now with interim head coach and assistant general manager, Joe Stefan, at the helm, the Firebirds are facing another challenge as it begins to prepare for the 2016-17 season. Flint holds the third and fifth overall selections in Saturday’s OHL Priority Selection for minor midget players, but convincing those prospects to join the club will be an issue for Terry Christensen, who's overseeing the draft for the Firebirds.
(UPDATE: OHL commissioner, in a statement released Wednesday night, announced that Nilsen has been suspended from involvement with the team for five years and fined $250,000. The Firebirds have also lost the third overall pick in Saturday's draft. Branch also announced that the franchise will operate under his "stewardship, supervision and direction", and league executive Joe Birch will continue as director of hockey operations.)
Multiple player agents with which Yahoo Canada Sports spoke this week have advised the Firebirds against selecting their clients.
According to Hockeyprospects.com's final rankings, Kirill Nizhnikov of the Toronto Junior Canadiens is the top-rated skater while TheScout.ca has defenceman Ryan Merkley atop its rankings for this year’s draft. The Guelph Storm hold the No. 1 pick overall followed by the Sudbury Wolves with the second selection.
Nizhnikov’s agent, Darren Ferris, told Yahoo he’s already informed the Firebirds not to select the 16-year-old, if he’s still available.
“With Flint, we've already told them it's just not going to work,” Ferris said this week. “Under other circumstances it might work, but at this point, it's not something that's going to happen.”
Ferris says the 6-foot-1, 181-pound forward s likely headed back to his native Russia for next season.
“We're talking to a team that's a men's league team, so it's at a higher level (than major junior),” said Ferris. “It's not (the) KHL, but it's right below the KHL.”
Nizhnikov initially hoped to represent Canada internationally, but plans changed after he played for the Russians at the Youth Olympics in February.
“There's a team that we're discussing right now that's making it pretty enticing to go there,” Ferris continued. “We were hoping while he was here, that he'd be able to play for Canada eventually, but what happened playing in that Youth Olympics, it took away his eligibility.”
Ferris isn’t the only agent that told Flint not to select their clients. One agent, who requested anonymity, said: “It's our job, making sure that we're educating our clients.
“I advised (Flint) weeks back not to select any of our players,” he added. “Under the circumstances, right now, we're not comfortable having our kids report to Flint.”
Another agent told Yahoo that until the ownership situation in Flint is resolved, he wouldn’t be allowing any of his clients to sign with the OHL club.
“The league is either going to decide to operate (the team) indefinitely, which I don’t think that they can,” the agent said. “That will create problems with the owners. Or they need to bring in the proper people or the owner does to run the organization in a professional way.
“If that’s not happening, we can’t put our clients at risk in a situation like that. Until that changes, that one team out of the 20 in the league is a franchise that everybody will likely try to steer clear of.”
Branch sent an email to the agents Wednesday night to inform them of the Nilsen suspension. Yahoo obtained a copy of the email, which is intended to alleviate concerns about the future operation of the Firebirds:
I know that a number of player representatives and agents have questions concerning the upcoming Priority Selection and the Flint Firebirds. We believe that the steps the League has taken since February 18, 2016 and in particular the most recent position taken by the League today, should serve to ease your concerns and the concerns of your current and prospective players and their families.
Given the unique circumstance of the timing of the Order and the 2016 Priority Selection, once a player has been drafted by the Flint Firebirds, Joe Birch Director of Hockey Operations will be reaching out to the player. All calls to the team regarding current and prospective players are to go to Joe Birch.
Following the Priority Selection, in order to ensure consistent communications, Joe Birch and I, are the only people speaking for the team. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us at any time.
It remains to be seen if Wednesday's announcement is enough to convince the agents - and more importantly, the parents of 16-year-old junior hockey hopefuls - to send teenagers to Flint for next season.