John Gruden, Flint Firebirds coach, felt like Billy Martin
Sunday firing triggered a firestorm; led to re-hiring
Flint Firebirds coach John Gruden packed up his office, put his belongings in his car and drove off into the night without a job.
Soon after Gruden woke up, he was back to work.
"I felt like Billy Martin," he deadpanned. "Fired one day, and hired the next."
One difference, though, is that the former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner didn't have a son playing for his franchise when he hired Martin five times between 1975 and 1987, fired him four times and let him resign once.
Gruden and his Ontario Hockey League team were back on the ice Wednesday, trying to regain a sense of normalcy.
That won't be easy.
Suddenly, a lot more people know who the Firebirds are than did last week because of their transcendent story.
Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen fired Gruden on Sunday night following a win, triggering a firestorm.
The players, including the owner's son, responded by marching up the team's front office and throwing their jerseys on the floor in a unified protest.
The next day, Gruden got his job back and assistant coach, Dave Karpa, was given a two-year extension to match Gruden's three-year contract. Nilsen released a statement in which he said he made an "irresponsible mistake," and added that the team was co-operating with the OHL's investigation into the matter.
He didn't reference his son, seldom-used defenceman, Hakon Nilsen, in the statement. And even though the team president, general manager and coach insist playing time for the owner's son didn't lead to the surprising moves, questions still linger about how much of a factor that was in what the owner acknowledged was an emotional decision.
"It was a number of things," said Firebirds general manager Terry Christensen, who was told by the owner to fire Gruden. "Leave it at that. You get emotional involved, you get emotionally attached to a situation anytime you have own blood involved. The bottom line is this: Hakon doesn't want preferential treatment on this team."
The 17-year-old Nilsen, who played in five of the team's first 17 games, was on his hands and knees to pick up pucks and put them in buckets between drills Wednesday morning. It's not clear if he will play Friday night at home against the Sarnia Sting.
"It's a tough spot for him," Firebirds captain Alex Peters said.
The owner's son is on a team with other 16- to 20-year-old prospects, five of whom have been drafted by NHL teams. The rest of players are training and competing to get into a position to be selected by NHL teams when they're eligible in 2016 or 2017. The players are paid $470 a month, get room and board from a family in the Flint area, plus an education package.
The players potentially put their careers at risk when they essentially quit Sunday night, throwing their jerseys on the floor of the front office, and left the arena with their equipment bags over their shoulders as if they weren't coming back.
"We were making a statement," Peters said. "We just took our stuff."
The Firebirds drew 4,000-plus at their first game and have had about 3,000 fans at subsequent games. They are in their first season after existing as the Plymouth Whalers in suburban Detroit, where the franchise was owned by Peter Karmanos, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. OHL games are popular in Canada, with games televised in Ontario, but they're largely overlooked in Michigan.
Christensen said his job as a general manager is to give the owner opinions about what's best for the franchise while respecting his decisions.
Did Christensen advise Nilsen not to fire Gruden?
"In regards to Rolf Nilsen, I love the guy. I really do," Christensen said, then bowed his head and fought back tears for 17 seconds before finishing his answer. "It was a tough situation."