The Firebirds franchise suffered through a messy inaugural year in Flint, thanks to some nepotistic drama, a full-team walkout and an OHL intervention. A year later, the team is preparing for its first appearance in the playoffs since rebranding — and could unseat a powerful team in the first round.
The Difference a Year Can Make
On Sunday, February 12th, centre Ryan Moore’s hat trick helped the Firebirds into 7th place in the OHL’s Western Conference. The win gave the team 57 points and a thick cushion between themselves and the ninth place, 48-point Saginaw Spirit — all but assuring an appearance in the postseason.
A year ago, things weren’t this positive in Flint. In February, 2016, Nilsen had just fired Head Coach John Gruden and Assistant Dave Karpa for the second time that season. For those who haven’t followed the drama in Flint, here are the Cliffs Notes.
Rolf Nilsen Suspended by OHL
In November 2015, Nilsen fired the team’s entire coaching staff for reportedly not giving his son Hakon enough ice time. However, Hakon later joined his teammates when they quit the team en masse to protest the decision. The bold move paid off — Nilsen apologized to the team and promptly brought the coaching staff back with three-year contract extensions. However, on February 17, 2016, Nilsen fired Gruden and Karpa again.
That’s when OHL Commissioner David Branch stepped in to suspend Nilsen and investigate the situation. Ultimately, the OHL suspended Nilsen from the team for five years and fined him $250,000. The league then took stewardship over the club, appointing Joe Birch as director of operations, Ryan Oulahen as head coach, Eric Wellwood as assistant and George Burnett as General Manager.
Although the OHL did well to right the ship, it was a negative atmosphere for the players and the damage was done to the team’s season. The Firebirds finished with a dismal 20-42-6 record, failing to compete with any consistency.
Possible Upset in Store for Sault Ste. Marie
Fast forward a year, and the team is in a far better spot. Thanks in part to 19-year-old Moore’s 70-point season (32 goals, 38 assists), the team should make the playoffs. If the standings stay as they are, the team could be a foil to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds’ plans.
Currently on a 5-0-1 run, the Firebirds defeated the Greyhounds handily by a score of 5-3 on Saturday, February 11th, a game in which the team’s star players came through in a big way.
Most nights, those stars are Moore and NHL prospects Kole Sherwood (CBJ), Nicholas Caamano (DAL), Alex Peters (DAL) and Jalen Smereck (ARI).
NHL Prospects Lead the Way
Sherwood is the team’s second-highest scorer behind Moore, with 27 goals and 34 assists for 61 points. Although the 20-year-old graduate of the Ohio Blue Jackets minor hockey system went undrafted, he was signed as a free agent by native NHL team the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2015 after he performed well in tryout camp. He was named CHL Player of the Week in mid-January, during a week in which he had seven goals and four assists (11 points) in three games.
Caamano and Peters are both Dallas Stars prospects. Caamano, a 19-year-old left winger, was taken in the fifth round of the 2016 draft (146th overall), and has 50 points in 51 games. Peters is a bruising 6-foot-4, 217-pound defender with limited offensive ability but tremendous upside as a stay-at-homer who can move the puck capably.
Smereck was signed as a free agent in 2016 by the Arizona Coyotes. This season, he has 35 points in 49 games.
The Western Conference features some titanic hockey clubs at the top of the standings every year, so the Firebirds will have a steep hill to climb once the playoffs begin. Although it would be entertaining to see them knock a team off, this season will be viewed as a success as long as they qualify for the postseason.
It would take another catastrophe for this team to fall out of playoff contention, but don’t expect that. The Firebirds haven’t lost more than three in a row all year, and by all accounts, the worst is far behind them.Back to Top
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