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The situation unfolding in Flint over the last few days reads more like a plot for a soap opera than the everyday happenings of a junior hockey club.
The man behind this mess is team owner Rolf Nilsen, a wealthy businessman who, according to the Firebirds’ website, dreamed of owning an OHL club for 20 years prior to purchasing the Plymouth Whalers and relocating them to Flint.
But with the team in last place in the division, coaches having been fired twice, and an investigation into the conduct of Nilsen and the team’s management, this season has looked more like a nightmare for the Flint Firebirds.
To recap: On Wednesday, head coach John Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa were fired for the second time this season by the team’s owner and replaced by interim head coach Sergei Kharin. In an act of protest, players reportedly conducted their own practice that day and held several players-only meetings.
A day after the firings, OHL commissioner David Branch launched an investigation into the team’s conduct, suspended the team’s owner, management and Kharin until further notice, and named Joe Stefan, Firebirds’ assistant general manager, and Pat Peake, a former NHL player, as the head coach and assistant coach, respectively.
The OHL also appointed Joe Birch, the league's senior director of hockey operations, to undertake control of hockey operations for the Firebirds.
A similar sequence of events unfolded in November when Gruden and Karpa were originally fired for failing to give the team owner’s son, Hakon, a defenceman, enough ice time. After a walkout from the players, including Hakon, the coaches were reinstated and given three-year contracts.
Nilsen bought the Plymouth Whalers in January 2015 and moved the team to Flint, Mich. for the 2015-16 season. Nilsen, along with his business partner Costa Papista — who is listed as the team's president — had previously bought an arena in Flint, which would become the home of the new team.
In a detailed biography on the Firebirds’ website, Nilsen — who is often named with the honorific Captain preceding his name — is described as “hockey fan and a highly successful businessman.”
Originally from Norway, the biography describes Nilsen growing up participating in sports such as bandy — essentially ball hockey on ice — and ski jumping, a popular sport in Nordic countries.
He became interested in hockey when he moved to the United States 28 years ago, the website says, and has since played alongside former Detroit Red Wings players as a member of team’s alumni squad. Kharin is also on the alumni team.
Nilsen has made his fortune in the marine industry with the company IMS, “the world’s leading manufacturer of sliding, watertight doors for ships and the offshore industry,” according to the company’s website. He’s listed as the technical director of IMS USA Inc., which is based in Cape Coral, Fla., which is where Nilsen lives and where his son Hakon was born.
Also tangled in this messy situation is Kharin. He’s a former pro hockey player who was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets but played only seven games for the club in 1990-91 season.
According to a story by TSN’s Frank Seravalli, following the debacle in November, Nilsen signed an agreement with the OHL to refrain from participating in the team’s hockey-related operations, which included barring him from firing coaches.
Seravalli writes that Kharin was hired as a “special advisor” shortly after the deal was made with the league, and acted as Nilsen’s proxy, ensuring he could continue to control the club.
According to Seravalli’s story, Kharin — with Nilsen’s approval — was behind the trade of forward Connor Chatham to the Windsor Spitfires and did so without the then general manager Terry Christensen’s consent.
Christensen was fired as the team’s GM in January. He’s currently the team’s vice-president of hockey operations.
Kharin became the team’s director of hockey operations in January.
Another person in the middle of this is Nilsen’s son, Hakon. The defenceman spent five seasons with the Detroit Honeybaked and Little Caesars Hockey Clubs, teams in the Michigan’s High Performance Hockey League, before committing to Flint.
Hakon’s ice time has been a central issue in reports throughout this saga. In a November article, Sportsnet’s Gare Joyce quoted an unnamed agent saying Hakon “is a borderline OHL player… a seventh D.”
Following the Firebirds’ 5-2 loss to the Erie Otters Thursday night, the defenceman spoke to the media. The scrum was posted to YouTube via MLive.com.
When asked whether his ice time was a factor in the firings, Hakon said no.
“This time it actually was not, at all.”
When a reporter pressed him on what he meant by “this time,” Hakon backtracked.
“Well, actually, both times the main problem was not my ice time, but obviously it’s the easier story,” he said.
“It’s a lot of details,” he said about why the firings happened. “I really can’t get into that right now.”
Hakon also said he’d talked to his father that morning and “everything seems to be fine.”
“He’s not disappointed. He took this as a positive interaction. Hopefully the team can move forward.”
Hakon was also asked about his experience with Gruden, the team’s former head coach.
“It was ups and downs. I can’t really say too much, but I think he’s a good coach,” he said. “Stuff happens. People get fired. We went on a, I think, 15-game losing streak (Dec. 19-Jan. 30) so you can’t go on that kind of losing streak and expect nothing to happen.”
Hakon’s teammates also spoke about the team’s situation after Thursday’s game.
“I think this is the closest group of guys I’ve ever been with and I think that’s saying a lot,” forward Ryan Moore said about the trying year.
“John Gruden and Dave Karpa have been the best coaches I’ve ever had. They’ve always been there for us and I really liked how they coached. They really believed in us and it’s too bad because they’re really good coaches,” said Will Bitten, the team’s leading scorer.
“It’s something I’ve never had to deal with before,” team captain Alex Peters said about the situation. “I’m trying to learn from this and grow as a person and I’m sure everybody on our team this year has matured quite a bit just dealing with this situation.”