Flint junior team rehires coaches after players walk out

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Flint — The Firebirds?

More like the Firestorms.

Flint's brand-new Ontario Hockey League team has made some national and international news this week, with ownership firing the coaches, the players walking out in disgust, and ownership rehiring the coaches — all in the span of 24 hours.

The Firebirds announced just after 5 p.m. Monday that head coach John Gruden and his coaching staff would be brought back, and they even were given new, three-year contracts.

They were fired following Sunday's game — a victory, no less.

"I made a decision with regards to our coaching staff which was an irresponsible mistake," owner Rolf Nilsen said in a statement. "(Monday), the team's senior leadership met with the players to apologize and had a very frank discussion about next steps leading to a resolution."

That resolution has not yet been met.

Players, including the son of the owner, Hakon Nilsen, and team executives will meet again Tuesday, with hopes of returning to practice Wednesday — and playing their game against Sarnia on Friday.

Hours worth of meetings were held Monday, from morning till night, at multiple locations, ending at the team's home arena, Dort Event Center, were suit-clad players gathered in the fan lot for 15 minutes late afternoon, before being told that they could move their cars back to the players' lot.

Joining the meetings was OHL commissioner David Branch, who traveled into the city from league offices in Scarborough, Ontario, and met one-on-one with Nilsen and then discussed the situation with players, first the entire group, then the captains. Branch is remaining in Flint for Tuesday's meetings.

"This type of a situation was taken incredibly seriously by the OHL and the Canadian Hockey League," said team president Costa Papista, who addressed the media instead of Nilsen. "The league is taking this very seriously and investigating this entire matter."

The Flint Firebirds, in their first year after the franchise relocated from Plymouth following the sale by Peter Karmanos Jr., are in last place in their division, but had just earned a 4-3 shootout win over Oshawa on Sunday when things began to unravel.

Nilsen hastily fired Gruden and assistant coach David Karpa, to the absolute shock of them — and especially their players.

The entire roster of 22 players, with Hakon Nilsen first in line, marched upstairs to the executive offices and dropped their jerseys on the ground. They said they wouldn't return until the coaches returned.

There was a report by TSN in Canada that before the protest, Hakon Nilsen, a 17-year-old defenseman, was on the phone with his father asking, "What the (bleep) are you doing?" Papista wouldn't confirm that, nor would he confirm the reason the coaches were fired.

Several reports suggested Rolf Nilsen was upset with his son's playing time; he's played in five of Flint's 16 games, posting a minus-3. Papista vehemently denied that, but wouldn't offer an explanation for the root of Rolf Nilsen's issue with the coaches.

"Rolf's a passionate hockey man, so I think that's probably one of the reasons why he was getting emotional," Papista said. "Some of the decisions that are made in that state are not your best ones."

Gruden, 45, has had a long career in hockey, playing collegiately at Ferris State (earning all-CCHA in 1993-94) and for parts of several seasons in the NHL with the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals. Gruden also played with the now-defunct Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League and the Grand Rapids Griffins, before they were affiliated with the Red Wings.

His coaching career also has included stints with Detroit Little Caesars, and Birmingham Brother Rice and Rochester Stoney Creek high schools.

Gruden didn't return a message for comment from The News.

Papista said the players showed just how much they care for Gruden, and called Gruden and Karpa's new contracts "deserved." Karpa had been on a one-year contract, so now he and Gruden are under contract for the same length.

"The players were very frustrated. They trusted and respected their coaches, John Gruden and Dave Karpa, and they stuck up for them," Papista said. "That was obviously a great sign of solidarity for their coaches.

"So they made their point very clearly and it was accepted by Rolf Nilsen."

The players, of whom Papista said he was "very proud," haven't yet retrieved their jerseys, and there will no practice Tuesday as the sides continue to talk.

No players have asked for a trade or to be released, Papista said. The team's roster includes Red Wings' third-round pick Finnish defenseman Vili Saarijarvi.

Late Monday, a report surfaced the team traded Hakon Nilsen to the Sudbury Wolves, but a Firebirds spokesman denied the story. .

Nilsen didn't return a message for comment from The News, and neither did Branch.

Flint has been home to minor-league hockey most every year, in some form, since 1969, with several different ownership groups breaking the trust of the residents of Flint and Genesee County.

Nilsen bought the team in January from Karmanos, who netted a reported $30 million from the sale of the team and Compuware Arena. Nilsen said that day it was his goal to build hockey back up in Flint, which lost the popular Flint Generals after the 2009-10 season.

Nilsen, a Norway native who made his fortune manufacturing watertight doors, poured big money into the team and renovations to his arena, including a lavish new home locker room.

Now, he'll try to repair his relationship with the team, and the city.

"This is a setback," Papista said. "This is, unfortunately, overshadowing a lot of great things about our young organization. I think we've got a great group of players, a great front office.

"We're gonna deal with it, we're gonna pull through it as a front-office team as well as an on-ice team, and just continue to improve and learn from this experience.

"We can recover from this."