After a rocky inaugural season, the OHL is trying to establish some solid footing for the Flint Firebirds. That will begin with longtime OHL coach and GM George Burnett, who was named the GM of the Firebirds Tuesday.
Burnett, 54, comes into Flint with a hefty resume that could help immediately give the Firebirds a solid base upon which to build. Burnett is coming off of a 12-year stint with the Belleville Bulls and Hamilton Bulldogs franchise, over which time he acted as both the coach and GM of the club, as well as four years as coach and GM of the Oshawa Generals and another decade-plus experience behind the bench in the OHL, AHL and NHL.
OHL commissioner David Branch said appointing Burnett, who has been a familiar face in OHL circles, “will provide the players, parents, billets and team staff with stability and expertise.” Branch continued by saying Burnett will be joined by a “strong team in hockey operations,” will will include Joe Stefan, 50, who will be back as assistant GM after spending the 2015-16 campaign as part of the Firebirds’ front office.
“I am excited to be joining the Flint Firebirds organization and dedicating 100% of my time to the management of the team,” Burnett said in a release. “The Flint Firebirds have a bright and promising future and I look forward to being part of the team and the Genesee County community.”
The past season was a nightmarish one for players, families and fans of the Firebirds. Early in the campaign, coaches John Gruden and Dave Karpa were let go by team owner Rolf Nilsen, and it was believed the ice time of Nilsen’s son, Hakon, who is a defenseman for the Firebirds, played a part in the firings. However, the OHL stepped in after players revolted, bringing Gruden and Karpa back into the fold with contract extensions. By mid-season, though, Gruden and Karpa were fired again. It’s then the OHL stepped in and levied sanctions against Nilson and the Firebirds.
The sanctions against Nilsen included suspending him from involvement with hockey operations for five years — he’s allowed to apply for reinstatement after three — and a fine of $250,000, and the team was forced to forfeit its third-overall selection in the 2016 OHL draft.
Amidst the turmoil, the Firebirds still managed to stay out of the league’s basement. Flint posted a record of 20-42-6 and finished ahead of the Guelph Storm and Sudbury Wolves in 2015-16.
No coach has been named for the upcoming season, and finding a bench boss will likely be one of the first steps Burnett and Stefan take. Following Gruden and Karpa’s second firing last season, Stefan took over behind the bench.