Coming together in Flint

June 24, 2016

It was a first season to forget in many ways but the signs are pointing in the right direction as the Flint Firebirds prepare for their second go-round in the Ontario Hockey League.

With new ownership at the helm of the relocated Plymouth Whalers, the OHL set up shop in Flint last fall amid expectations of a rabid rivalry between the Firebirds and the nearby Saginaw Spirit.

And while the rivalry between the OHL’s two mid-Michigan teams gave an indication of how intense it could become in years ahead, the Firebirds in general created more bad news than good.

Owner Rolf Nilsen clashed with coach John Gruden early on and the result was the firing, re-hiring and second firing of the Firebirds bench boss, all within a matter of months.

The hockey department disaster led to a much-publicized intervention by OHL commissioner David Branch.

And the end result of a Branch-led investigation saw Nilsen suspended from being involved in the hockey side of the Firebirds for five years and the OHL, acting as stewards, hiring gentleman George Burnett as general manager, Ryan Oulahen as head coach and Eric Wellwood as associate coach.

To be sure, with the hiring of the 54-year old Burnett — who has been involved in the OHL as a respected GM and coach since 1989 — and up-and-coming young coaches Oulahen and Wellwood, it has been a series of good-news, off-season days for the Firebirds.

Flint used its first two picks of the 2016 OHL draft on a pair of high-scoring forwards, namely Ty Dellandrea and Hunter Holmes. And within days of being drafted in the first and second round respectively, both Dellandrea and Holmes signed OHL contracts with the Firebirds, thus ending any speculation that the dandy duo would not report to Flint.

So, with Burnett in charge of hockey operations, Oulahen and Wellwood in place as the lead coaches and with youngsters Dellandrea and Holmes joining a roster that figures to return leading scorers Will Bitten, Ryan Moore and Nicholas Caamano in 2016-2017, the Firebirds do seem to be on track and coming together following the fireworks of 2015-2016.

Meantime, a few good words in defense of the aforementioned Nilsen.

Let’s not forget that prior to and following the purchase of the erstwhile Plymouth franchise that Nilsen has probably spent between $15 and $20 million to set up OHL shop in Flint.

Not only did Nilsen buy the Plymouth franchise but he also laid out millions more to purchase what is now called the Dort Federal Credit Union Event Centre in Flint and then spent millions more to upgrade the facility that the Firebirds play out of. Nilsen may have made major mistakes as a first-year OHL owner but there can be no denying the millions of dollars of his own money that he has spent to buy the Firebirds and house them in the spare-no-expense comfort of their own arena.

Looking ahead, there is work to be done on and off the ice in Flint.

The Firebirds missed the Western Conference playoffs in ’15-16, finishing with a record of 20-42-6 that included a 15-game losing streak with the twice-fired Gruden behind the bench.

At the gate, the Firebirds averaged 2,984 fans per home game, which was only 18th-best in the 20-team OHL, though ahead of the well-established Owen Sound Attack and Peterborough Petes. And of note, the 2,984 fans that the Firebirds averaged is only 400 less than what nearby-rival Saginaw averaged in finishing 13th on the attendance chart.

With all that has transpired since the end of the ’15-16 season, it’s not a stretch to say that the forecast in Flint calls for better days ahead.

PHOTO: An inside view of the Dort Federal Credit Union Event Centre, home of the OHL’s Flint Firebirds.

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