Clouds of uncertainty hovered over the 20 teams of the Ontario Hockey League when the 2021-2022 season began after the entire 2020-2021 campaign was lost due to the Covid-19 nemesis. More so perhaps was the unknown evident in Flint where the Firebirds had made sweeping changes to the organization with a new general manager and coaching staff.
But through 38 games thus far this season the Firebirds have a record of 22-14-2 and are part of a tight race for first place in a Western Conference fast lane that also includes the Soo Greyhounds, London Knights, Windsor Spitfires and Guelph Storm.
To add fuel to the fire, Flint has also dominated its arch rival Saginaw Spirit, which is fighting to stay out of last place in the 10 member Western Conference.
To be sure, there were a few fingers crossed within the Firebirds fire pit once the 2021-2022 season began. Flint had achieved a franchise best record of 40-21-2 before the 2019-2020 term was shut down and the OHL went dormant until this past fall.
The 40-21-2 record was the result of a well-orchestrated rebuild led by general manager Barclay Branch and his hand-picked head coach Eric Wellwood.
But flash back to this past off season when Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen hired Terry Christensen for the newly created position of president of hockey operations. Shortly after, Branch resigned as GM and Wellwood turned in his key to the coach’s room.
Seemingly undaunted, Christensen moved forward and hired Ted Dent as the Firebirds new head coach.
Now, well into the ’21-22 season, Flint is in the thick of the quest for first place in the Western Conference led by the likes of workhorse overage goalie Luke Cavallin, overage forward Ethan Keppen and younger, high-end talent such as forwards Brennen Othmann (a first round, National Hockey League draft pick of the New York Rangers in 2021), Riley Piercey, Amadeus Lombardi, Coulson Pitre and Zach Giroux and defensemen Tyler Deline and Tristan Bertucci.
As the Firebirds are a serious contender for this season, they are also well positioned for 2022-2023 and beyond thanks to both the departed Branch and some solid patch work by Christensen.
Firebirds goalie Luke Cavallin takes a breather during a recent game in the Soo in which the Firebirds defeated the Greyhounds in overtime. (photo by Bob Davies)
NORTH SIDE OF FLINT
They may be based in mid Michigan but the Firebirds have a firm player and scouting connection to northern Ontario.
The Firebirds not only have 2003 birth year forward Zach Giroux and 2004 birth date forward Samuel Assinewai but their head scout and a regional scout both have northern Ontario roots.
Hailing from Greater Sudbury, Giroux was a third round pick by Flint at the 2019 OHL priority selections draft. And at the 2020 priority selections draft, Flint was able to come away with a sleeper of sorts by snagging Manitoulin Island native Assinewai in the 13th round.
Giroux is in double digits in goals and points for Flint this season while Assinewai has been a useful contributor on the Firebirds fourth line and has scored four goals in 23 games.
Meanwhile, on the scouting side, Firebirds head scout Mike Oliverio is based in Sault Ste. Marie. And Freddie Coccimiglio, who was born and raised in the Sault, is the Golden Horseshoe area scout for the Firebirds.
The 54-year old Oliverio and the 40-year old Coccimiglio are veteran OHL scouts who both have high level backgrounds as players.
Oliverio was an OHL standout over five seasons as a high scoring center with his hometown Soo Greyhounds.
Coccimiglio, meanwhile, was a star forward with the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League before going on to play four full years of Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association hockey at Buffalo’s Canisius College.