Thursday, December 17, 2015

Flint Firebirds (2015-16, OHL)

2015-16 Regular Season: Firebirds vs. Saginaw Spirit
     The Flint Firebirds are in their first season in the Ontario Hockey League. They are the sixth hockey team to call Flint home since 1969, and the first one in the OHL. The Firebirds are owned by Rolf Nilsen, who also owns IMS, a manufacturing company based out of Florida. The team plays it's home games at the refurbished Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center (formerly the IMA Sports Arena). Terry Christiansen (former Coach/GM of the Detroit Falcons) is the general manager, while former NHL forward John Gruden is head coach.
     While Flint is new to the OHL, the franchise is over 20 years old. It began as an expansion franchise in 1990 as the Detroit Compuware Ambassadors. Owned by Peter Karmanos, the Ambassadors would later become the Detroit Jr. Red Wings, Detroit Whalers, and, finally in 1997, the Plymouth Whalers.
     Due to declining attendance, Karmanos put the Whalers up for sale in 2015. The original plan was for the franchise to relocate to Chatham, Ontario, for the upcoming season. However, the lack of a suitable arena and no plans to build a new arena in Chatham doomed those plans.
     About that time, Nilsen purchased both the then-Perani Arena and Iceland Arena. Looking to bring in a higher level of hockey, Nilsen and IMS Hockey first attempted to purchase a USHL expansion franchise. When those attempts did not succeed, they purchased the Whalers from Karmanos and relocated the franchise north to Flint. A successful "Name-the-Team" contest was held, and "Flint Firebirds" was the winning entry.
     In November, the franchise made international headlines for all the wrong reasons. After a dramatic come-from-behind win over Oshawa, Nilsen fired both Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa, allegedly over the lack of playing time for Nilsen's son. The players were outraged, and walked into the front office and threw down their jerseys and "walked out". After 24 hours and a meeting with OHL Commissioner David Branch, Nilsen rehired Gruden and Karpa and gave them 3-year contract extensions. The players returned to the Firebirds shortly after.
     This program is from the December 4th, 2015, game against the Saginaw Spirit. Saginaw and Flint were  arch-rivals in the IHL and UHL for many years. The Spirit and Firebirds battle for the I-75 Challenge Cup, which goes to the team that has the most points in the 8-game series. That night, the Spirit came back from a 2-0 deficit to win in a shootout, 4-3. That night's attendance was 2950.
     It's great to see high-quality hockey back in Flint again. Nothing against the Generals, who were excellent, but this is the best level of hockey in that town since the Spirits moved away. Flint has struggled to draw crowds the past several years, but the average attendance for the Firebirds is (as of now) 3,017 per game. Not a bad start.
     This program is sixty pages long, all color pictures and on glossy paper. There are articles about the renaissance of downtown Flint, the history of the Plymouth Whalers and bios about Nilsen, Gruden and the players on the cover. Each player has a bio as well. Local advertisements include Bubba O'Malley's, Patsy Lou GMC, Hoffman's Deco Deli & Cafe and Goodwill of Mid-Michigan.