As the Firebirds’ second OHL season begins, the situation in Flint seems far more stable than it was in their first.
In November of last year, the entire Firebirds coaching staff was fired without cause, prompting a mass walkout of the team’s entire roster. Though the coaching staff was reinstated following a players-only meeting with OHL commissioner David Branch, they were fired by owner Rolf Nilsen once again in February.
The situation came to a head in April when Branch issued a statement outlining the ways in which Nilsen violated an agreement he signed after the initial firings in November 2015. In addition to a $250,000 fine and the forfeit of the Firebirds’ 2016 first-round pick in the OHL draft, Nilsen was suspended from any direct or indirect involvement with the Firebirds for five years.
In May, the OHL appointed George Burnett as general manager of the Firebirds. The league also appointed Ryan Oulahen as head coach, with Eric Wellwood joining the team as associate coach. With a new front office and coaching staff, the Firebirds were ready to move forward into the new season.
Of course, not everyone felt that way. Forward Will Bitten requested a trade prior to the beginning of the season, noting that he would not be reporting to Flint at all. It’s understandable that Bitten did not feel comfortable returning, particularly as the stress affected his play to the point that his father spoke to the media about it at the end of last season. In the end, the Firebirds traded him to the Hamilton Bulldogs, receiving defenseman Fedor Gordeev and goaltender Connor Hicks, as well as picks, in exchange for Bitten getting a fresh start.
Of note: the Bulldogs’ head coach is none other than former, wrongly-fired Flint head coach John Gruden.
Another player getting a fresh start — this time in Flint, rather than away from it — is Kole Sherwood. Traded to the Firebirds from the London Knights, Sherwood was often a healthy scratch for the Knights last season due to the team’s depth up front, and only dressed in 7 playoff games.
Sherwood’s play for the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Traverse City rookie tournament impressed new Flint general manager Burnett, who sees the forward as someone who could be a valuable part of the Firebirds team. As Sherwood is the type of player to seize the opportunity he’s given with both hands, this move bodes well for his development. He’s already a big guy — 6’2” and 204 pounds — so this offseason, Sherwood worked on matters like his explosiveness and conditioning.
Making an Impression
Forward Luke Kirwan has the potential to have a breakout season this year. While he wasn’t selected in the 2016 NHL Draft, the Detroit Red Wings invited him to their rookie camp and the Traverse City tournament, and it’s safe to say there are NHL eyes on him.
Kirwan is a power forward type, with a good, heavy shot and skating that has improved markedly over his OHL career. He’s not afraid to get physical, winning battles and throwing hits, but also protects the puck well and is capable of making plays.
The situation in Flint is better for everyone this year, and feeling the weight of last year being lifted off their shoulders is showing in the team’s 4-1 record thus far. That bodes well for Kirwan’s hopes of parlaying his play into a route to the NHL. Being a difference-maker for the Firebirds could go a long way toward either seeing him drafted in Chicago in June of 2017, or seeing him signed to an entry-level contract at a later date if teams choose not to spend a draft pick on him.