There’s no knowing what’s next for the Flint Firebirds. Last night the players en masse quit the team after a win over the Memorial Cup champions Oshawa Generals and the firing of coach John Gruden.
There’s really no precedent for this in league history and certainly no handbook that commissioner Dave Branch can refer to this afternoon when he meets with ownership and later talks to the players.
At the centre of this is the pressure on Gruden to play defenceman Hakon Nilsen, who just happens to be the son of Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen.
According to principals, including NHL scouts and agents with clients on the team, the players knew that there was a storm gathering before last night’s game. With the exception of Hakon Nilsen, they met with Gruden and his staff and the coach laid out there were going to be some switches in the lineup and that he couldn’t sugar-coat the reason for the move. Said one agent: “[Hakon Nilsen] is a borderline OHL player… a seventh D. Last night he played 17 minutes, including power-play minutes.”
Evidently not enough. Pink slip after game. The team went en masse, the owner’s son included, to hand in their sweaters and quit the team. Last night the players stayed together at the home of a billet family. (It’s not clear at this time whether Hakon Nilson spent the night with the players or went to his family’s home.)
At 8 AM this morning, they spoke with Gruden on a conference call. Gruden told the players that he would return to the team if the door was open to him. Said one NHL scout: “Gruden is a good coach and a solid hockey man and I know the players like playing for him. That they have that distraction and go out and beat Oshawa like they were playing for his job says a lot.”
It’s unconscionable for Rolf Nilsen to put Gruden in such an awful spot but maybe that’s the way that he conducts business. It’s his money so he can spend it and mismanage it as he pleases. Dave Branch can meet with the owner today and let him know just how much the reputation of the league is damaged by this debacle. This story doesn’t just make it hard for the Flint team to recruit players—in fact the whole league suffers. Parents might be reluctant to sign their sons up with the league for fear that their sons will be traded to the Firebirds. But that’s for Branch to handle.
Hockey people suggest that some family counselling might be in order. It’s unconscionable for the owner to put his son in the spot that he did. Said one Michigan-based scout: “[Hakon Nilson] isn’t a bad kid. He’s a victim.” That Hakon Nilson took the side of his teammates rather than his meddling father speaks volumes about his character and the limits of influence a parent can have on a kid.