Firebirds have bonded during nightmare season

Former Flint Firebirds coach John Gruden is pictured behind the bench against the Sarnia Sting. (Jake May/AP)

ST. CATHARINES, Ont. — The Flint Firebirds’ inaugural Ontario Hockey League season has seen the same head coach fired twice, the players walk out on the team, the new owners suspended by the league and the city itself in crisis with undrinkable tap water.

And yet some good has come out of the Firebirds’ tumultuous debut in the beleaguered Michigan city. Captain Alex Peters and leading scorer Will Bitten say the challenges have brought the team together, forging an unbreakable bond.

"We’ve had some experiences that no team has had," said Peters after a 4-1 loss to the Niagara IceDogs on Thursday night.

"We’re a group of brothers in there," added Peters, gesturing to the Firebirds’ locker-room.

The Plymouth Whalers moved to Flint in the off-season, where they were renamed the Firebirds by a new ownership group that includes Norwegian-born industrialist Rolf Nilsen.

On Nov. 8, all 23 players on the team quit the team in response to the firing of then-head coach John Gruden and his staff. Gruden had been let go over an ongoing dispute with Nilsen, who wanted more ice-time for his son, defenceman Hakon Nilsen.

The players’ protest worked, as Gruden and his staff were re-hired that day and given three-year contract extensions.

However, Gruden was fired again on Feb. 17. OHL commissioner David Branch responded by suspending Nilsen and his appointees on the management and coaching staff, a ban that is still in effect. He also insisted on counselling for the players, at the owner’s expense.

Joe Stefan has served as interim head coach and general manager since then.

"As a unit and as a team we’ve all stuck together and had to deal with a bunch of challenges together," said Peters. "Our team stuck together and dealt with everything as a team and now we’re a real close unit."

Flint will miss out on the playoffs after a 7-2 loss to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds on Saturday night.

The Firebirds have four more games left in the regular season and head into the summer with the league continuing its investigation of its ownership group.

"It’s not a thing that happens to every team in the league," said Bitten, who has 30 goals and 35 assists and is ranked 42nd among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting ahead of this summer’s draft. "This year’s been really tough for us and something we didn’t expect. We’re so close as a team, we stuck together.

"It’s been a really challenging year but we have a couple more games left and we’re hanging in there."

As difficult as the season has been for the Firebirds players, it pales in comparison to the crisis facing the residents of Flint, who have had their drinking water contaminated with 6,000 to 12,000 children exposed to high levels of lead.

None of the Firebirds players live in Flint and are safe from the contaminated water, but they are still concerned for their fans’ welfare.

"Flint’s been really good to us, the fans have been great," said Peters, who was quick to point to a joint drive with the Windsor Spitfires that saw over 40,000 bottles of water donated to the city. "The times that we’ve gone out and been able to help out have been great.

"I know our people at the office have been doing a great job trying to help the community."

The Firebirds also donated over $100,000 to local charities including the Old Newsboys of Flint, which serves underprivileged children in the area.

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