Firebirds’ Weekend the Latest in a Series of OHL Family Affairs

By Bryan Thiel (@BryanThiel_88)

The Ontario Hockey League lays claim to being the top developmental league in the world, as it prepares teenagers for the next step in achieving their dreams of one day playing in the NHL. The track record of the OHL speaks for itself: seven of the last nine first overall picks have come from the OHL, 203 players across the past five drafts were selected out of Ontario, and five of the last eight Calder trophy winners got their start in the OHL. Those teenagers face bright lights and note pads, rabid fans, and increasing amounts of pressure each day they spend playing junior hockey, answering for their actions no matter how big or small.
 
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stop at just their actions.
 
The thing with teenagers is that they come with parents; parents that (in some cases) have grown accustomed to leaning on a coach to get their child more ice time or better line-mates. Parents are vocal because, in their mind, they’re looking out for their child’s best interests. Once their kid moves to junior, most don’t have the power to really be able to do anything about a situation they’re unhappy with.
 
Some do, however. And that’s what got brought to the forefront once again this week in Flint.
 
By now you know that Rolf Nilsen, a man who has seen his fair share of success in the business world, is the owner of the Flint Firebirds. His Firebirds are the team that selected his son Hakon, a defenceman, in the seventh round of the franchise’s first-ever OHL Priority Selection this past spring. Those same Firebirds were front and centre Sunday night when (after a stirring comeback win over Memorial Cup champion Oshawa) Rolf relieved Head Coach John Gruden and staff of their responsibilities, frustrated by Gruden’s deployment of his son on the blueline.
 
Hakon was playing in just his fifth OHL game that night after tearing his meniscus during the pre-season. He played 17 minutes (including power-play time) on Sunday, but it was unsatisfactory. The coaches were fired, the players (including Hakon) responded by handing in their jerseys, and so began the stand-off that Commissioner David Branch would help see to a resolution on Monday afternoon.
 
Throughout the ordeal, Hakon was firmly in the corner of his teammates and coaches. That left his father alone and backtracking Monday, offering a stiff apology to the team and handing over three-year contracts to Gruden and company.
 
Just over a year ago, it was another teenager that had the foresight his father (and team owner) did not. Connor Burgess had become a lightning rod for the struggles of the Sudbury Wolves. Caught between his father’s hopes that he would find his footing at the OHL level and a fan base that was less-than-pleased with his performance and further maddened by the direction the team was heading, Connor stepped away. In deciding to focus his attention towards his studies, he separated himself from a situation that had become a no-win for everyone involved. It had driven people out of the organization, content to start somewhere else, far away from a situation that had no happy ending.
 
In a league devoted to development, these are just the most recent in a long line of instances that have seen a parent and teen wind up on the same team. Not all of these stories end so publicly or painfully though.
 
Matt Hoyle spent an uneven 16 games with the Guelph Storm in 2009/10 where his father Rick is a co-owner. Dale Hunter had sons Dylan and Tucker Hunter play for him in London along with nephews Logan Hunter and Rick Steadman. Mike Foligno had both sons Nick and Marcus join him in Sudbury when he was Head Coach, while in Windsor Warren Rychel traded for his son Kerby during the 2010/11 season, watching him play parts of four seasons for the Spitfires.
 
Controversy even found its way to the Ottawa 67’s last year when Jeff Brown took over as head coach. At the time, Brown’s son Logan had yet to commit to the Niagara IceDogs. With rumours swirling that he might follow his father to the Nation’s Capital as a defected player; the elder Brown was forced to quiet them at his introductory press conference. “I’ve coached him his whole life,” Jeff said. “It’s time for someone else to coach him.”
 
While the 67’s did admit that there’s possibility they could unite father and son one day, the organization took the time to discuss those swirling rumours head on in hopes of steering away from potential trouble.
 
This past weekend’s events involving the Nilsens have sparked a conversation about whether or not an organization that employs (or is owned by) a parent should be allowed to draft the son. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this gets brought up one day to the OHL’s Board of Governors, but right now everything is too fresh. With the dust still settling on the weekend, the league will take a step back and let everything decompress before it even thinks about discussing anything.
 
But if you’re looking for an easy solution to prevent things like this in the future, there isn’t one. Someone’s parents will always own or coach a team, and eventually their kids will be old enough to play. Once they reach the league, people will always talk.
 
We just have to hope the influential voices have learned from the faults of others.

Bryan Thiel is a freelance broadcaster who has covered the OHL from rink-side and the broadcast booth. He has also helped produce OHL features for the past four seasons. You can follow him on Twitter @BryanThiel_88.
 
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