REGINA – Moments after the Hamilton Bulldogs defeated the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL final, winger Will Bitten sought out coach John Gruden.
What was said?
“Not something I can say on camera,” Bitten said, before smiling and then giving the PG version.
To paraphrase, Bitten was thrilled because he and Gruden had become champions together after enduring one of most bizarre and frustrating seasons just two years prior.
Gruden said he had the same thought, too – that they’d run the gamut and ended up stronger for it.
“Guys kinda tease me and say he’s my dad because we’ve been around (together) for so long,” Bitten said. “It feels so good. I’m happy for him, also. It was hard for him in Flint. He really deserves it.”
On the surface, the 2015-16 season for Gruden, Bitten and the rest of the Flint Firebirds couldn’t have gone any worse.
It was the team’s first year in the city after Rolf Nilsen bought the Plymouth Whalers from Peter Karmanos and moved it to north in Michigan. Nilsen hired Gruden, a former United States National Team Development Program assistant, as his new coach.
But Nilsen fired Gruden and his assistant coach Dave Karpa in early November amid reports the coach wasn’t playing the owner’s 17-year-old defenceman, Hakon, enough. The players revolted, turning in their sweaters in support of Gruden and Karpa. They were rehired and given three-year extensions.
But the George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin act continued in February as Nilsen canned Gruden and Karpa again. The Firebirds wound up finishing ninth in the Western Conference with a 20-42-6 record, missing the playoffs by 10 points.
The OHL suspended Nilsen that April for five years and banned him for having any involvement in hockey operations. He was fined $250,000.
Gruden was left to search for silver linings throughout much of the season.
“It was difficult,” Gruden said, after struggling to find the right word.
“I got support from the players. They believed in what we were doing. I owe them a lot. We had a safe haven of still being able to prepare for practices and going on the ice. But through the challenging times, there some times where you start to doubt. I had good people around me to help me through that.”
Throw in a drinking water crisis it was really more of the more bizarre set of circumstances for a junior hockey player. “I didn’t think it was going to go that way at all,” Bitten said, stating the obvious.
Throughout the year – during the periods he was coaching – Gruden made Bitten a focal point of the team. The 17-year-old was an alternate captain and led the team in scoring with 65 points in 67 games.
It was enough to entice the Montreal Canadiens to select the Franco-Ontarian from Gloucester, Ont., in the third round (70th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft. (The Canadiens signed him in March.)
“I had big role in Flint as a 17-year-old,” Bitten said. “I tried to help my team as much as I could.”
But with Gruden gone, the enlarged role wasn’t enough to make Bitten want to stay in Flint. He requested a trade that summer.
Meanwhile, Gruden was hired by Steve Staios to be the new coach of the Bulldogs in June. Bitten was reunited with Gruden after he was dealt to Hamilton in the first week of the 2016-17 season.
“It’s like almost comfortable. You know the style of coaching he wants you to play,” Bitten said. “I just fit right in when I got traded.”
Getting a player Gruden knew so well was also beneficial to him. The pair rekindled their family-style relationship with Gruden relying on Bitten to lead the way in the dressing room and on the ice.
“Will’s been a very loyal player,” Gruden said. “I told him as much as we went through the year before I’m going to be harder (on you). It’s almost like a son coming on your team. I told him you’re really going to have to pave the way and show everyone. Will did that. He’s just been a great acquisition.”
That, of course, brought out some tough love, too.
“He gives it to me sometimes – maybe more than sometimes,” said Bitten, who was third in Bulldogs scoring with 64 points. “No, you know what? If he doesn’t give it to you sometimes it means he doesn’t really care about you. He wants me to get to that next level.”
With Gruden behind the bench and Bitten providing a scoring punch up front, the Bulldogs reached a level as OHL champions they haven’t achieved since 1999 when the franchise was still in Belleville.
The Belleville Bulls moved to Hamilton in 2015, the same year Flint got its team from Plymouth. The Firebirds have missed the playoffs twice in three years and fell in the first round once.
It’s a far cry from what happened this season in Hamilton – with a coach at the helm who was put through the ringer not so long ago.
“If it wasn’t for Flint hiring me, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Gruden said. “I knew what I did (in Flint). We were actually doing some good stuff. What we did, I believed in.
“I was really, really fortunate to be able to get that second opportunity … and see the results in such a short period of time.”
That’s why after the win over the top-ranked Greyhounds, Gruden made sure to thank Bitten — and former Firebirds Ryan Moore and Nicholas Caamano (Bitten’s former Flint linemates) who were acquired in November.
“To see those guys come through it and be able to get this opportunity was very special for me and I’m sure for those players as well.”