OHL suspends Firebirds owner over firing decisions

OHL Comissioner David Branch spoke with Shawn McKenzie about his concerns for the players involved in the Flint Firebirds' ongoing drama surrounding its owners and coaches.

TORONTO — The Ontario Hockey League suspended Flint Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen on Thursday, a day after the team fired its coaching staff for the second time this season.

Head coach and general manager John Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa were fired on Wednesday. Director of hockey operations Sergei Kharin was named interim head coach and assistant coach Petr Jonak was retained.

Back on Nov. 8, the Firebirds fired Gruden, Karpa and Jonak before reinstating them the next day.

“The recent actions by the owner of the Flint Firebirds, Rolf Nilsen, and his representatives on the management team and coaching staff is of great concern as they pose a serious threat to our commitment to our players and their families,” the OHL said Thursday in a statement.

In addition to Nilsen’s suspension, the league suspended his appointees on the management and coaching staff, including Kharin, until further notice. The Firebirds have also been ordered to provide counselling services for players under the direction of the league.

League officials met with the players in Flint later Thursday to discuss the situation. The Firebirds played the Erie Otters on Thursday night, with assistant general manager Joe Stefan and former Plymouth Whalers star Pat Peake serving as coaches, and dropped a 5-2 decision.

Nilsen and team representatives have also been told to co-operate with the commissioner and the league in investigations into the conduct and actions of the team and its representatives, employees, officers and directors. The league said it will take any action and impose any sanctions that are deemed appropriate by the commissioner.

According to reports, the Firebirds originally fired Gruden and Karpa last fall because Nilsen felt his son, defenceman Hakon Nilsen, wasn’t receiving enough playing time. Reports said each Flint player, including the owner’s son, handed in his jersey and quit in response.

Ownership called the firings an “irresponsible mistake” the next day and re-hired Gruden, Karpa and Jonak. Gruden took on a GM role with the team in January.

The Firebirds, formerly the Plymouth Whalers, are in ninth place in the Western Conference with a 16-32-6 record. They’ve have dropped 18 of their last 20 games.

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