OHL finalizes decision on Firebirds’ owner Nilsen

TORONTO, ONT. – Ontario Hockey League commissioner David
Branch has investigated the situation regarding Flint Firebirds’ owner Rolf
Nilsen, and on Wednesday afternoon, finally reached a conclusion on how the
league will handle the situation.

Nilsen’s punishment has three different aspects of it. The
first, and obviously most severe, is that Nilsen is suspended by the league
from being involved in any way with the Firebirds’ hockey operations for the
next five years, effective immediately. The second part was a bit surprising,
as the OHL stripped the Firebirds’ of their first-round pick, third overall, in
Saturday’s draft.

The third and final point of the punishment forces Nilsen to
pay the league a fine of $250,000. Apparently, after the firing head coach John
Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa the first time around and having to
re-hire them due to a players’ strike, Nilsen had to sign an agreement, which
basically stated that from this point forward, he was to run the team within
the best interests of both the franchise and the OHL.

If he is caught being involved in the Firebirds’ operations
in any way, however, the league may force him to sell 100-percent of his
ownership of the Firebirds. After a three-year period, though, he is eligible to
apply for reinstatement to return to operating the franchise.

Currently, the team is being run under the ‘stewardship, supervision
and direction of the Commissioner.’ Joe Birch had been leading Flint’s hockey
operations since February 2016 and will remain as the Firebirds’ Director of
Hockey Operations. A new general manager, head coach and additional hockey
operations staff will be brought to the franchise in the coming weeks.

The OHL did go on to thank the team’s players, families and
billets from this past season, as well as the fans. The league also stated that
Flint and Genesee County has made great efforts to provide a stable environment
for the players.

The whole controversy began just 17 games into Flint’s first
season. Nilsen fired the coaching staff, immediately after a dramatic win,
apparently due to his son’s lack of playing time. The players, including his
son, walked up to the front offices and threw their jerseys on the floor,
initiating a players’ strike. Branch came to Flint to resolve the issue and
Nilsen was forced to rehire Gruden and Karpa in order to get his players back.

After a while it seemed as if the drama had died down, but
the perception behind the scenes was much different. Nilsen and general manager
Terry Christensen began executing a series of head-scratching trades that made
it seem as if they were intentionally tanking the team’s record, making a
second firing appear necessary. After a lengthy losing streak, Gruden and Karpa
were fired once again.

And once again, the league came to Flint. They suspended
Nilsen, and his management staff, for the rest of the season. It just so
happened that a game was to be played that night at home against Erie, so the
OHL quickly appointed a new interim coaching staff and the game was played. It
was quite clear, though, that the fans were tired of the behind the scenes
drama, as it was easily their smallest crowd of the season.

Leading up to Saturday’s draft, many of the top American and
Canadian players had already stated that they would not report to Flint if
selected by the Firebirds. Perhaps that is why the league handed down this
punishment this week, possibly enticing players to report to Flint with the
knowledge that Nilsen will have absolutely nothing to do with the team’s

There have been rumblings that Diplomat Pharmacy is
interested in buying the franchise, as well as Detroit Pistons’ owner and
Flint-area native Tom Gores. Only time will tell, though, what is instore for
the future of the Flint Firebirds.

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