NHL Prospects

Flint Firebirds Coaches Fired — Again

Back in November, something nearly unprecedented in the OHL occurred — the entire Flint Firebirds roster staged a walkout, quitting the team after their coaching staff was fired seemingly without cause.

Rumors persisted that the firing was due to owner Rolf Nilsen’s displeasure with the ice time of his son Håkon Nilsen (it should be noted that Håkon was among the players who walked out). The team’s actions lead to the reinstatement of the coaches, with three-year contracts, no less, following a players-only meeting with OHL commissioner David Branch, and it appeared that the matter was settled.

Today, however, it was made clear that there were still ruffled feathers. For the second time this season, the Flint Firebirds have fired head coach John Gruden — who just last month was also given the position of general manager — and assistant coach Dave Karpa.

In his official statement, Branch noted that the firings themselves, as well as the way they were communicated to the players and the league, were “of great concern”. Branch has already contacted team captain Alex Peters and intends to speak with the other Firebirds players, as well as their parents, before making a decision on how to move forward.

From this point, moving forward will likely involve taking a long, hard look at the current Firebirds ownership group. Former Firebirds players Vince Scognamiglio, who played 16 games with the team this season, and Mitch Jones, who currently plays for the Alaska Aces of the ECHL, took to Twitter today to voice their opinions on the matter:

London Knights beat writer Ryan Pyette notes that at this point, the best option for the league might be a forced sale, which could potentially involve moving the franchise again, depending on who the hypothetical new ownership group is.

NHL prospects, both drafted and draft-eligible, have been particularly affected by the tumultuous situation in Flint.

Firebirds forward Will Bitten is ranked 42nd among North American skaters for the 2016 NHL draft, and faces the possibility that a team may not consider him as seriously this season because of all of the off-ice drama. Drafted prospects may see their NHL clubs choose to assign them elsewhere due to development concerns — there are already rumors flying that the Detroit Red Wings are looking for somewhere else for highly-touted defensive prospect Vili Saarijärvi to play next season.

Two Carolina Hurricanes prospects, forward Josh Wesley and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, were dealt to the Niagara Ice Dogs prior to the OHL trade deadline, and it wouldn’t be a reach to wonder if Hurricanes may have had a hand in the deal.

Another aspect the league has to consider is the effect this situation has on Firebirds draft picks and whether they’ll choose to play in the OHL.

Late this afternoon, messages popped up on social media, attributed to and allegedly from current Firebirds players, strongly advising draft picks who hadn’t yet reported not to do so. Whether the messages were actually from current players or not is moot.

Firebirds draft picks choosing to play NCAA hockey or in the USHL, rather than reporting to the OHL, is a realistic concern that the league will have to address, as it means their talent pool will shrink. Pyette mentioned he had already spoken to an agent who agreed with the sentiment.

While there are many matters to consider before making an ultimate decision, it seems that a dramatic shakeup of the situation would be for the best. Damage control is necessary in the moment, but the league also needs to look at long-term solutions, like ones that involve better vetting of potential future ownership groups to avoid something like this happening again.

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