By Aly Munro
UPDATE: Firebirds owner, Rolf Nilsen has released a statement. The coaching staff has been reinstated today.
When you visit the Flint Firebirds website – a new team to join the Ontario Hockey League this season* (see footnotes) – you will be impressed. Images of sold out crowds in a state-of-the-art arena stick out immediately. A roster full of young talent and a preview for their Sunday afternoon game when they will host the reigning Memorial Cup Champions is found on the high-traffic website.
When I watched the Firebirds take on the Steelheads in Mississauga, I met some Firebird staff members who were devoted to the new franchise’s vision. It was early in the season and the players seemed joyful during their early warm-ups around the arena. No bad blood seemed to exist regarding the decision of Steelhead rookie Ryan McLeod to not report to camp in Flint**. Everyone seemed content with where the franchise was starting out. The team was forming its identity in a league full of tradition.
Following Sunday night, you would assume a shootout victory over the Oshawa Generals would add to the impression this team is forming. Instead, junior hockey fans got a taste of the politics that unfortunately surround the game.
It was announced that the team’s head coach, John Gruden (along with his assistant coaches) were dismissed from their duties just after Sunday night’s shootout victory over the Generals. The players (fresh off their eighth victory of the season and their first shootout win) stormed upstairs to quit the game they love.
Is this a story of solidarity? Or is the story deeper than that? The players joined together because of the reported reason behind the firing. Team owner Rolf Nilsen has a son on the team, rookie defenceman Hakon. Hakon was not receiving the minutes that his father (and no doubt, he) desired. He has dressed for five games and is a minus three.
Hakon joined his teammates in the walk-out.
The Ontario Hockey League prepares players for the professional world of hockey - they are the top breeder of NHL players. This is by no means an attack on young Hakon in a draft-eligible year - what this is about is the lack of morals and abundance of politics around the game of hockey.
While many lessons are learned during a player’s time in the OHL, including professionalism and the responsibilities of being employed as an athlete, dealing with corruption should not be present in these experiences. It is no secret that nepotism is present in sports – the son or daughter of someone important and the role they play on a team is almost a tradition – but it’s house league/bush league…or any other type of league that is not preparing their athletes for a professional career. The commissioner of the OHL, David Branch, prides himself in the fact that the OHL is an elite brand of hockey. The new kids on the block just came in and negatively influenced that brand - or did they?
A new precedent has been established in the league. A new identity for the Firebirds has been formed as well. In recent memory, such an event has not occurred. According to reports, all of the players gathered following the walk-out at a billet’s home. They all spoke with Gruden, who reportedly stated he would return to work with the team if the spot was open to him.
Hakon, who played 17 minutes in Sunday’s victory, showed great character by walking out with his teammates when he knew the cause of Gruden’s dismissal. Without concentrating on the player’s future within the league, the focus should be shifted to the standard the Firebirds have created. A team stood up for what is right and consequently made the OHL better.
Branch should not be worried about the OHL brand following the event, because the young men who walked out showed the character-building they have endured under the Ontario Hockey League name.
An OHL spokesperson has informed the media that Branch is on his way to Flint to meet with the team and their officials.
* On January 14th, 2015 the Plymouth Whalers were sold to IMS USA, Inc. The sale moved the Ontario Hockey League Franchise to Flint, Michigan. The 2015-2016 OHL season is the Firebirds' inaugural season.
** Ryan McLeod was drafted by the Flint Firebirds third overall in the 2015 OHL Priority Draft. Ryan’s older brother - Mike – played his rookie season for the family's hometown OHL team, the Mississauga Steelheads. In late August 2015, Ryan chose not to report to Flint’s Preseason Camp. On September 2nd, the Steelheads acquired the centerman in exchange for 6 draft picks.