When Ryan McLeod was selected third overall at the 2015 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection Draft, he became the first-ever draft pick in Flint Firebirds history. It was a fresh start for members of the organization – both players and staff alike – and McLeod was supposed to be the new face of the franchise after it became clear that former Plymouth Whalers star Sonny Milano would be moving on to play pro hockey in the American Hockey League.
The tailspin that has endured all season began when McLeod spurned the Firebirds, refusing to report to training camp and avoiding contract talks. He was eventually traded for a plethora of draft picks, as Flint management knew they would only net future considerations for their young asset who never wore a Firebirds jersey (he never even put it on at the draft, where the top-three picks are supposed to don their new teams’ sweaters).
Some cited McLeod’s ties to Mississauga (it’s his hometown and his brother Michael plays for the Steelheads) as the sole reason why he wanted to be traded before even giving Flint a chance. However, it seemed a bit like foreshadowing that a high-profile OHL prospect would refuse to report to a team where he’d be playing top minutes.
All superstition aside, he got out at the right time – right before the stock of all his fellow upcoming NHL Draft prospects began to fall rapidly in tandem with the quality of play, and morale, of the Firebirds team.
When owner Rolf Nilsen fired his highly-respected coaching staff a few months ago – reportedly over the fact that head coach John Gruden refused to give special privilege and playing time to Nilsen’s son Hakon due to poor play – the entire Firebirds team (including Hakon) staged a walk-out in which they boycotted the team until Nilsen re-hired the coaches. Commissioner Dave Branch and the OHL had to intervene to get things settled, and Nilsen brought back Gruden and his assistants with a three-year contract extension.
All appeared to be back on track for a while: Hakon was getting his fair share of playing time and the Firebirds kept losing. But apparently once one issue was resolved, another arose in the form of the latter – instead of viewing the losing as part of the rebuild that is clearly taking place in Flint, Nilsen fired Gruden and co. again, citing their recent losing record. Since then, the OHL has essentially taken over the team entirely, as this is now the second incident in the team’s inaugural season in which league officials had to step in to keep tensions from exploding between players and ownership.
Lost in all of this, though, is the toll it has taken (and will continue take) on the players – specifically the team’s 2016 NHL Draft prospects. The team’s current run-away leading scorer, William Bitten, has posted 54 points (24G, 30A) in 55 games, averaging nearly a point-per-game in 2015-16. The center has been absolutely dominant for the quality of play around him in his draft year, which could have made him a late first-round pick; instead, because of all this drama, he may fall to the mid-rounds.
Bitten is about 5’10” and 167 lbs – fairly small when compared to the average hockey player’s size. All along, it has been pretty obvious that he would have to impress scouts tremendously in order to compensate for being small. But with the situation the way it is in Flint, his reputation has (unfairly) become associated with this season’s saga.
He is known as one of the players who walked out, and also as a good player on a dreadful team. But what a lot of scouts don’t know is that he has not been able to thrive in Flint, mired in such a mess that his owner created.
Luke Kirwan, the other well-known 2016 draft prospect in Flint, played the first half of the season with the Windsor Spitfires. Since his trade to the Firebirds, he has registered only seven points in 20 games. One would think that such an underperforming high-quality talent would explode upon a change of scenery, but going to Flint has not done much for the forward.
The situation in Flint reached its boiling point this past week, and with the 2016 NHL Draft just four months away, the Firebirds could use a little boost in the PR department with some high NHL draft picks. The environment is making it impossible for 2016 prospects to improve their stock, though, and they will probably fall deep into the draft.
And come summer, it wouldn’t be surprising if most – or even all – Flint Firebirds OHL Draft picks refused to report for the 2016-17 season.