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Rolf Nilsen punishment hurts Flint Firebirds fans too

The Ontario Hockey League announced strict sanctions on Flint Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen on Wednesday for mismanaging his team throughout the 2015-16 regular season. Commissioner David Branch’s doled-out punishments will show the reckless, irresponsible owner (and any others who may arise in the future) that the ‘owner’ label does not grant one access to complete autonomy in the hockey operations department.

Nilsen’s penalty includes a hefty fine and a five-year suspension from any involvement in hockey operations, but the league may have dropped the ball in attempting to be fair to fans. They took away the team’s third-overall pick in the upcoming 2016 OHL Priority Selection Draft.

Now let’s not be irrational. The magnitude of penalization bestowed upon Nilsen was absolutely necessary. The Firebirds owner fired his coaching staff in November when they refused to insert his son into the lineup, leading to an unprecedented backlash on the behalf of every member of the team (including Hakon) who threw their jerseys on the floor of his office and quit in an act of solidarity.

The PR nightmare that ensued forced Branch and league officials to make an emergency visit to Flint to settle the conflict, which they did with relative ease. The coaching staff was reinstated and the players dressed for the next game. It left a bad impression on both players and fans alike though, and it set the tone for the rest of the season.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Nilsen incomprehensibly fired his coaching staff once again in February, causing even more turmoil and essentially sealing the IMS USA, Inc. figurehead’s fate in the hockey business. The OHL suspended Nilsen indefinitely at that point, mandating that counseling be provided to the players at the expense of the owner and forcing him to comply with a league investigation into what exactly was going on.

Wednesday’s news was an indication that that investigation is now complete, and Nilsen was the culprit of the entire mess. The Firebirds franchise is now under direct control of the OHL and Brach appointed Joe Birch to handle all hockey operations for now, with a head coach and general manager to be named at a later date.

But just two days away from a critical day for Flint–the OHL Draft–the team may be at even more of a deficit now than they were a week ago since they lost their third overall pick.

The Firebirds’ inaugural draft pick, Ryan McLeod, was selected at the same spot in last year’s draft. The Mississauga native did not even report to the draft because he refused to play for the Firebirds, making the incredibly frowned-upon decision to make it known that he wanted to play for his hometown Steelheads instead. Thus, Flint received a compensatory fifth-overall pick in the 2016 draft, and until yesterday, it looked like the draft would be a big step forward for the organization after such a rough season.

Many previously-drafted Firebirds prospects have already refused to sign on with the team for 2016-17 due to the drama that occurred this past season, so it is going to be difficult enough to get highly-talented players on the roster as it is. Adding insult to injury, the league has essentially imposed an unfair penalty on Flint fans looking for star-quality players they could add through the draft, because instead of two top-five picks, they now only have one.

Say what you will, one top-five pick is pretty good; but Flint was owed two this year, and with Nilsen officially banned from hockey operations, only the fans will be punished as a result. In years past, Memorial Cup contenders have been built through the draft, and the Firebirds are basically starting from scratch. In dire need of a rebuild in order to put this dismal situation behind them permanently, the league is doing no favors to fans of the brand-new team.

The inaugural season was a complete and total disaster for Flint Firebirds fans to have to suffer through, and with their light at the end of the tunnel (a top-three draft pick) taken away from them, it just keeps looking worse. The OHL has done a solid job at handling the situation, but they botched this one last detail.

Sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better, so here’s hoping for a fresh start to a much better 2016-17 season.

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