Flint Firebirds rehire coaches, players end walkout; OHL's embarrassment will linger

Flint Firebirds coach John Gruden (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)

With a David Branch Band-Aid affixed, the Flint Firebirds have resumed being an Ontario Hockey League team.

According to reports, coach John Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa are unfired. Twenty-four Firebirds players have unquit. All stakeholders in what is very much a fledgling franchise in its first year in Flint met with Branch, the OHL commissioner, following Sunday's walkout. The wildcat strike commenced after Gruden and Karpa were fired over the amount of ice time portioned out to owner Rolf Nilsen's son Håkon Nilsen, whom one agent that Sportsnet's Gare Joyce quoted called a "borderline OHL player... a seventh D." So some reasonable facsimile of an OHL team will take the ice Friday for a game against the Sarnia Sting.

Overall, the stunner in all of this is that junior hockey players pulled this off. By nature, they are not inclined to stand up to management and have no players' association representing their collective interests. Yet they took on the owner and won, on some level. 

(And you thought the biggest OHL story of the past 24 hours was going to be a goalie fight between Guelph's Justin Nichols and Windsor's Michael Giugovaz.)

At 5:07 p.m., Rolf Nilsen issued a statement expressing remorse for an "irresponsible mistake."

Branch, to borrow Chuck Barris' parlance, is a "fast gong" when it comes to damage control. The OHL, in the cynical Churchillian phrasing, can usually be trusted to do the right thing eventually, even though it invented the crisis the very moment last winter that it approved the transfer of the Plymouth Whalers to Rolf Nilsen and the move to Flint.

It's not a shock that the commissioner was able broker a deal; as Brian Thompson of OHL Fanboys pointed out, David Branch is a pretty good politician's politician. Money talks, and the potential lack thereof speaks even louder. With the way the fallout from the walkout spread — the Firebirds had to take down their Facebook page due to criticism — the league had to act in order to mollify sponsors upset at having their brand associated with a product that looks like a laughingstock. Above all else, the Firebirds players, even a signed NHL draft pick such as Detroit Red Wings defence prospect Vili Saarijärvi, live with host families that receive a stipend from the team to help with the costs of room and board. That means their leverage had a very limited shelf life. They are effectively indentured, practically like miners and their families in early 20th-century company towns.

Rolf Nilsen, for those (present company included) who did not know his background before about 10 p.m. ET on Sunday, is technical director of Cape Coral, Fla.-based IMS USA. The company is the U.S. wing of a giant Norwegian manufacturer that is a world leader in making watertight doors for container ships. Norway, being smaller population-wise, is actually a larger oil exporter than Canada (and unlike Canada, some of that windfall from being a northern hemipshere, First World petrostate actually trickles down to the populace at large, but let's keep this on sports).

Crying need for a coaches' and players' association

Suffice to say Nilsen, who's lived in the U.S. since 1987, is a heavy hitter. People with that amount of clout expect to get what they want. What is interesting about Håkon Nilsen is that the Firebirds' release from Aug. 27 that detailed his commitment doesn't make much mention of his playing accomplishments with "two of the top youth hockey programs in North America" beyond a quote attributued to Flint GM Terry Christiansen that the 17-year-old "worked very hard over the last two seasons to develop his strength both on and off the ice and has grown into a top defensive prospect for our hockey program." It isn't fair to impugn the ability of a young man that has been put in an impossible situation, but that takes on a cryptic meaning after this fiasco. Also, a rookie defenceman with zero points typically doesn't get on the power play in his fifth OHL game.

The worst unintended consequence from this clusterfudge would be to pretend that just because a quick fix was performed, everything is funky dory. Like Allan Walsh said, this affirms the crying need for major junior hockey players to have some form of advocacy organization as a buffer between them and the adults. The Canadian Hockey League got lucky that the drivers behind an alleged union drive in 2012-13 discredited themselves and were, in some cases, less than reputable people. 

It should not be lost on Branch or any other CHL solons that this was just a matter of when this would happen. Wealthy investors are always going to want to buy teams that their sons can play for, but there's a limit to how far nepotism can extend. This is the second time in barely one year that an OHL team has been riven by a controversy revolving around an owner's son being an out-of-his-depth player. That nepotism hurts the credibility of the OHL when a coach is fired since a regular shift for a "seventh D" didn't appease the owner. 

It's rarely an ideal situation when the son of an owner, coach and/or general manager is on the team. There is always an element of awkwardness. Ottawa 67's coach/GM Jeff Brown actually wanted no part of coaching his son Logan Brown, who plays for the Windsor Spitfires.

With a coaches' and players' association, though, the Firebirds hockey personnel would have had recourse to raise their concerns about "[Rolf] Nilsen's interference with the coaching staff [that] had been percolating under the surface for weeks in Flint." That relationship needs to get put in writing, for everyone's benefit, including the elder Nilsen, who ought to feel a bit chagrined about the self-inflicted hit to his product. In that event, any new owner coming into the league would also come in with a clear idea of where that line exists between passionate owner and undermining coaches and playing hell with players' futures.

The Firebirds players were correct to throw down their jerseys, essentially saying their status as OHL players was being reduced to a penny stock. They will play, and win again, but the OHL would be grossly negligent to treat this as a one-off. It is well past time to reach out to some "trusted adults" to serve as an ombudsperson to take up the players' internal-to-the-team issues. That would be in the same spirit as the mental health program that Branch implemented in 2014, partnering with the Canadian Mental Health Association.

When a business doesn't find a workable solution, it can have one forced on it. And Band-Aids only stay on for so long.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.

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