By Kaitlyn McGrath
It's been a wild couple of days for the Flint Firebirds after the team's owner fired the same coaching staff for the second time this season, resulting in OHL commissioner Dave Branch launching an investigation into the organization.
One day after Rolf Nilsen fired head coach John Gruden and assistant David Karpa -- for the second time since November -- the OHL stepped in and suspended the renegade owner and coaching replacement Sergei Kharin until further notice.
TSN hockey insider Bob MacKenzie tweeted that Branch traveled to Flint to discuss a plan on how to move forward with the players. The OHL subsequently announced that assistant general manager Joe Stefan and former NHLer and Plymouth Whaler Pat Peake would take over as interim head coach and interim assistant coach, respectively, and be behind the bench for Thursday’s game versus the Erie Otters. Stefan was previously an associate coach with the Whalers — the Plymouth team that was relocated to Flint at the start of this season — and was named assistant general manager in 2014.
The OHL also announced that the league's senior director of hockey operations, Joe Birch, will be assuming control of hockey operations for the Firebirds.
“The Ontario Hockey League appreciates the support from Joe Stefan, and distinguished OHL alumnus Pat Peake during this challenging period,” said Branch in an OHL press release. “The league has also appointed Joe Birch, OHL Senior Director of Hockey Development, to support the players behind the bench tonight.”
The most recent chapter of the Flint debacle started Wednesday when Nilsen dropped the axe on his coaching staff again, forcing the league to step in.
“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,” Branch said in a statement released Thursday.
The statement also included two additional sanctions:
“The Flint Firebirds at their cost, under the direction of the League, shall provide counselling services for players,” the statement read.
“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 messy Firebirds saga actually began back in November, when Nilsen fired Gruden and Karpa for reportedly not giving his son, Hakon, enough ice time.
What followed was immediate backlash from the players who instigated a walkout — Nilsen’s son was among them — in support of their coaches. The ordeal ultimately ended with Nilsen rehiring Gruden and Karpa and awarding them with three-year contracts, calling the firings an “irresponsible mistake.”
Yet a few short months later, they were let go again.
In an interview with TSN radio’s Ottawa affiliate, Michael Bitten, the father of Firebirds player Will Bitten, said from being around the organization, the most recent firings seem to again stem from Nilsen’s son not receiving enough ice time.
“It's pretty clear it’s the same issue,” he told TSN radio.
In another interview, Bitten also told The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell that there’s “no way” his son would play for Flint next season if Nilsen still owned the team.
“If there are not changes there, my son will not go back, and I don’t think many others would as well,” Bitten told Campbell.
When asked about not returning to Flint, Will’s agent Serge Payer, a former NHL player, said he’d look out for what’s best for his player’s development.
“He’s trusted in me to put him in a position to succeed and if his development is hindered then I need to do what is best for him and his development,” he said.
Since the firings, a number of players-only meetings have been held. TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported that the only player who reported to the team’s morning skate Thursday in Erie was the owner’s son.
#OHL's Flint Firebirds were scheduled for morning skate today prior to game vs. Erie. Only player to show was team owner's son, Hakon Nilsen— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) February 18, 2016
“It’s a really, really difficult situation because the kids are really, really nervous about the perception, how it affects their futures. They've been put in a really awkward situation,” Michael Bitten told TSN radio.
Payer said that he’s advised his client to focus on what he can control.
“He’s a leader. I think that people in hockey know he’s a leader and that’s why he’s chosen to grind it out throughout the season and stick behind his teammates, and stick behind the coaching staff, and the crest on the jersey and just prove that he’ll play for the crest, he’ll play for his teammates, he’ll play for the fans and he’ll show up with a mindset to get better each and every day.”
The situation in Flint appears fluid with a number of questions remaining, including what happens to Nilsen and the team’s ownership? For now, however, the OHL said it would continue to look into the matter.
“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,” the statement read.