The father of the Flint Firebirds top scorer this season said his son will not return next season if the Ontario League does not do something about Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen. Michael Bitten, the father of Firebirds leading scorer Will Bitten, said his son would have probably left the team immediately, but has been advised by his agent to remain with the team for the rest of this season.
But Michael Bitten said there is “no way” his son will return to the Firebirds next season if Nilsen still owns the team. “If there are not changes there, my son will not go back, and I don’t think many others would as well,” Michael Bitten said. “It’s probably out of (OHL commissioner) David Branch’s control to a certain extent, but he must have the power to rectify it and I don’t know what that is. But surely they have to take this team away from that man. How can you go on long-term?”
Michael Bitten’s comments came on the heels of the news that Firebirds coach John Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa had been fired for the second time this season. The two men were originally fired in November by Nilsen amid reports that he was upset his son, Hakon, a defenseman on the team, was not getting enough ice time. The league stepped in and both Gruden and Karpa were given three-year contract extensions. Bitten said his son told him that Firebirds director of operations Sergei Kharin came to the dressing room to tell the team that Gruden and Karpa had been fired again. He said Kharin told the players ownership still felt the Firebirds could make the playoffs, but didn’t think that could be accomplished under Gruden and Karpa.
“And I guess after that, things got ugly,” Michael Bitten said.
The players held a captain’s practice Wednesday and said they did not want Kharin on the ice with them. The Firebirds are scheduled to play the Erie Otters at home tonight and Michael Bitten said it’s his understanding the players will show up for the game. “They know a lockout is probably not appropriate anymore and a lot of them are nervous about the perception that way,” Michael Bitten said. “And I told David Branch this: the players are putting everything into him to do the right thing.”
Branch did not return a call placed to him by thn.com but said in a statement that the league is investigating the situation. “This change, the manner in which it occurred and the way it was communicated to the players and the league is of great concern,” the statement said. “It is the league’s intention to immediately review the actions of the Flint Firebirds before we determine the next steps we will take to address this situation.”
Michael Bitten said the players have ruled out conducting another walkout the way they did when Gruden and Karpa were fired in November, and instead are putting their faith in Branch and the OHL to rectify the situation. He said his son and others on the team were devastated that the move had been made again and that, in reality, not much changed with Nilsen even after the first incident.
“I spoke with David Branch tonight and I told him that nothing had improved, that the owner continued to do things that were making it difficult for the coaching staff and that stress level gets passed on to the kids,” he said. “This owner, he’s a billionaire and it seems like he’s challenging the OHL right now. I really hope they’re able to come to a solution because this problem is not going away.”
(Nilsen was offered the chance to respond by thn.com, which sent texts and emails to the team that were not returned Wednesday night.)
Michael Bitten also said that his son was “devastated” when the Firebirds traded defenseman Josh Wesley and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, Will’s mentors and two best friends on the team. Will Bitten is in his draft year and said the turmoil surrounding the team and the trades that were prompted by it definitely affected his play, and likely his status heading into the draft. He also said his son has been through the wringer in his two OHL years. Bitten was drafted by the Plymouth Whalers prior to last season and his father said that team would not have been his first choice, but decided to respect the draft process and report to the team that took him. The Whalers moved after last season, then landed in the turmoil in Flint this season.
“My son went through a kind of a depression when Nedeljkovic and Wesley were traded,” Michael Bitten said. “The stats speak for themselves. I saw on a forum said that William only scored two goals the last 15 games and was minus-19 and that speaks volumes because that’s exactly what happened. It was the turmoil that was really getting to him. It was very, very difficult.”
Michael Bitten was also unequivocal in his support for Gruden and Karpa and said the players are united in their feelings for their coaches. “They’re probably the two best coaches he’s ever had in hockey and that’s saying something because he’s had some wonderful coaches,” Michael Bitten. “I defy you to find anybody who will say a bad word about John Gruden or Dave Karpa. I told David Branch that these are the types of coaches the OHL should want.”