Firebirds’ firestorm comes back even stronger

FLINT — The controversy that surrounded the Flint Firebirds
in November made international headlines and put the Ontario Hockey League on notice
that team owner Rolf Nilsen may have been conducting team operations the wrong
way in order to serve his own personal interests.

But when the coaches were re-hired and the players returned,
the tension seemed to blow over. Or at least that’s how it appeared in the
public forum. Behind the scenes, however, things continued to go awry. It built
up until Wednesday afternoon when Nilsen once again fired head coach John
Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa. The allegation – in both situations –
was that Nilsen fired the coaches due to the amount of playing time for his
son, Hakon.

The argument has been made that the Firebirds’ lackluster
record is what led to the firings. However, those close to the situation
believe that a series of head-scratching trades earlier this year were made to
intentionally tank Flint’s record so that the eventual firings would seem

The situation immediately started another international
media uproar for over a day before OHL commissioner David Branch made a public
statement suspending owner Rolf Nilsen, as well as newly-appointed interim
coach Sergei Kharin, for the remainder of the season.

On Thursday morning, an 11 a.m. pre-game skate was scheduled
to take place, but the only player to show up for the non-mandatory skate was
Hakon Nilsen. Branch came to Flint and began the league’s internal
investigation, interviewing the Firebirds’ players. There was debate, though,
on whether or not Thursday’s home game against the Erie Otters would actually
take place.

In the early afternoon, the team made it known that the game
would be played, which instantly brought up questions of who would be behind
the bench for Flint. At the last minute, the league appointed Joe Stefan and
Pat Peake to come in and coach the team for the time being, allowing all of the
elements to be in place for the game to go on as scheduled.

Flint came out the gate strong, and continued to compete
hard throughout the game, but suffered a 5-2 loss to the league’s best team.
The situation obviously didn’t set well with the Firebirds’ fans as the game
produced what was easily Flint’s smallest crowd of the season. The team
announced an attendance figure of 1,929, but to the naked eye, it appeared to
be more in the ballpark of 1,000. The Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center
seats over 4,000 for hockey games.

After the game, Hakon made his first media appearance in
front of probably 25-30 different media outlets.

“I’m just trying to work hard and earn the respect of my
teammates and that’s what my main goal is,” said Nilsen. “They haven’t been an
issue at all. They’ve been really good to me and really positive and a few of
the guys have reached out to me.”

As far as the situation with his father goes, Hakon seemed
to give a more upbeat perspective than what was expected.

“I talked to him this morning. Everything seems to be fine,”
Nilsen added. “He’s not disappointed at all. He took this as a positive
interaction. Hopefully the team can move forward. Obviously (the OHL) had to
step in. It’s the second time this has happened. I think it’s very

He then went on to describe his relationship with former
coach Gruden.

“It had its ups and downs but I can’t really say too much. I
think he’s a good coach, but stuff happens. He got fired. We went on a 15 game
losing streak, so you can’t go on a losing streak like that and expect nothing
to happen.”

Then, the obvious question came up about his ice time being
a factor in the firings.

“This time it actually was not, at all,” he said before
having to back track a bit after media members asked him to elaborate. “Actually
both times. The main problem was not my ice time, but obviously it’s the easier
story. It’s a lot of details (behind the real reasoning). I really cannot get
into that right now.”

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