NHL

Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen suspended 5 years by OHL

Flint Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen was suspended for five years by the Ontario Hockey League on Wednesday, putting the team under the direction of league commissioner David Branch.

Fired head coach twice during season; sanctions also include fine, forfeit of 2016 pick

Flint Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen was suspended for five years by the Ontario Hockey League on Wednesday, putting the team under the direction of league commissioner David Branch. (Sean Proctor/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

Flint Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen was suspended for five years by the Ontario Hockey League on Wednesday, putting the team under the direction of league commissioner David Branch.

Nilsen was investigated at the league's request by Terrence O'Sullivan of the law firm of Lax O'Sullivan Lisus Gottlieb LLP, after the Firebirds owner twice fired the team's head coach over the protests of the players.

"I am satisfied that Rolf Nilsen of the Flint Firebirds has on several occasions violated an agreement he signed on the 11th day of November, 2015, between himself and the OHL," said Branch in a statement. "Those violations are contrary to the best interests of the players, the Team, and the OHL."

In addition to the five-year suspension, the Firebirds will forfeit a first round draft pick in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection (third overall) and Nilsen has been fined $250,000 by the OHL.

If Nilsen violates the league's order he may be forced to sell the Firebirds. Nilsen may apply for reinstatement to participate in hockey operations after three years.

Joe Birch, who has led Flint's hockey operations since February, will continue in his role as director of hockey operations, with a general manager, head coach and additional hockey operations staff to be appointed in the near future. Joe Stefan served as interim head coach and general manager until the end of the regular season.

The Plymouth Whalers moved to Flint in the off-season, where they were renamed the Firebirds by a new ownership group that included Nilsen, a Norwegian-born industrialist.

On Nov. 8, all 23 players on the team quit in response to the firing of then-head coach John Gruden and his staff. Gruden had been let go over an ongoing dispute with Nilsen, who wanted more ice-time for his son, defenceman Hakon Nilsen.

The players' protest worked, as Gruden and his staff were re-hired that day and given three-year contract extensions.

However, Gruden was fired again on Feb. 17. Commissioner Branch responded by suspending Nilsen and his appointees on the management and coaching staff. He also insisted on counselling for the players, at Nilsen's expense.

"I would like to acknowledge the outstanding commitment demonstrated by all Flint Firebirds players, families, and billets during the 2015-16 OHL season," said Branch on Wednesday. "I would also like to thank the passionate Flint Firebirds fans for their continued support of the team and the OHL. The League truly appreciates Flint and Genesee County and the efforts made by many to create a positive environment for our players.

"The OHL must strive at all times to meet our objectives of providing our players with the support, programs, and tools to ensure they have the best possible experience to grow as people and as players."

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