Flint not first time family has led to CHL issues

CHL commissioner David Branch joined Prime Time Sports to talk about the fiasco in Flint after the Firebirds players quit to take a stand against their owner.

It’s not the first time.

It might be the first time it’s happened exactly the way it happened on Sunday, where an angry owner fired his coaches because his son wasn’t playing enough and his angry players — including the owner’s son — marched upstairs and quit in protest.

And where a day later the owner had to reinstate the coaches, extend their contracts and presumably sign something in blood that said his flesh-and-blood wasn’t entitled to any specialty teams time, or even any playing time at all.

It’s the rapid plot twists and high drama surrounding the Flint Firebirds, where newbie OHL owner Rolf Nilsen appears to have vastly overestimated the appropriate role for Hakon Nilsen, his rookie defenceman son, that have made the situation so hot button.

After all, what minor hockey parent can’t relate to news about an overzealous coach, team official or parent trying to pull the strings when it comes to ice time, line mates or who gets on the first power play unit?

It’s Canada. It’s winter. It happens.

It’s almost refreshing to get such a graphic example that it happens all the way up the ladder, even in the OHL, which bills itself as the top development league in the world.

"I know I wasn’t the first coach to deal with it and as we see now, I certainly won’t be the last," says Trent Cull.

Cull dealt with it for two years before resigning as head coach of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves in 2013, leaving a group of players he’d had for three seasons with a year left on his contract.

He took an assistant coaching job with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. It was widely reported at the time that the decision was driven in part by the challenge of coaching Connor Burgess, the son of Wolves owner Mark Burgess.

"I was there for three years and Connor played for me for the last two and as time goes on, sometimes there might be different expectations but hopefully with open communication you can rectify everything," said Cull on Monday. "But the other thing is you’re trying to win games and you have a lot of players who are draft picks or want to be draft picks so you want to make sure everyone is developing as well.

"It’s difficult."

Particularly when the player in question isn’t good enough. A lot of owners, managers and coaches have had their sons play for them in the CHL. The hockey world is so small it would almost stop turning if it weren’t for nepotism of different shades.

There are even unwritten rules around how owners and executives acquire their kids. As a courtesy, other teams are expected not to draft kids whose parents work for rival teams and out of respect for the process it’s expected that teams that want to preserve family ties take their offspring a round ahead of where other teams have them slotted.

The biggest drama that surrounded Kerby Rychel was when the Barrie Colts drafted him ahead of his father Warren’s Windsor Spitfires. Once that was resolved it was pretty simple as the younger Rychel went on to score 102 goals for Windsor and was a first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. And back when Mike Foligno was the coach and general manager in Sudbury, family ties were a good thing as that meant he had his sons Marcus and Nick in the lineup for the Wolves — between them, the Folignos have gone on to play nearly 800 NHL games.

But when the player in question is a marginal talent and the person in charge has expectations for playing time, problems can cascade quickly.

"You try to have a plan set up before, but sometimes emotions get involved, especially surrounding hockey," Cull said. "It seems like an emotional sport to be a part of … [and] the dynamic is difficult to keep if someone is getting things that are unwarranted, so to speak."

In his case of Burgess’s son, he counted just one assist in 28 games as a rookie and one more assist in 59 games in Year 2. Eight games into his third OHL season, he retired.

"It’s very tricky, it’s really tough, once you’re talking about an owner and a son and a coach," Cull says. "For me, I have a family and it affects your wife, you’re living in that community and it affects everything you do. I was working for the Burgess family and they’d owned the team for 25 years. It was a big thing."

"Now that I’m removed from the situation you realize how unhealthy it is for everyone involved. It’s a very tricky situation for anybody … There were a ton of balls in the air and there was a lot of work to keep everyone focused. For me the timing was right for me to move on."

In Flint, Firebirds coaches John Gruden and Dave Karpa reportedly gained some job security out of the crisis, returning to work with new three-year contracts.

What will be interesting will be how they interact with the team’s owner going forward.

It may or may not have been the first time Nilsen meddled in matters of flesh, blood and ice time.

The real question will when the next time will be.

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