Faced with the possibility of a mass revolt from teenaged prospects against the Flint Firebirds, Ontario League commissioner David Branch had no choice but to take decisive and punitive action against Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen three days before the league’s annual draft.
Branch announced Wednesday night the league has suspended Nilsen for five years – with an opportunity to apply for reinstatement in three years – revoked the third overall pick in the draft and fined the team $250,000 for violations, “contrary to the best interests of the players, the Team, and the OHL.” If Nilsen is found to violate the order by getting involved with the team in any way, the league reserves the right to force him to sell the team.
But at least one legal expert said there are some murky waters to navigate here. Richard Powers, an associate professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto said he thinks there's a good chance there will be an appeal.
"It goes against many of the principles of natural justice where the penalty should be reasonable," Powers said. "I would say the commissioner is taking a risk in suspending (Nilsen) for five years. It's probably the first time the OHL constitution has been challenged and it really takes a case like this to bring it to the forefront. My legal opinion is (Branch) is never going to get him for five years. I think that would be above and beyond what would be reasonable. You can write anything you want into a constitution, but until it's challenged by somebody, you never know whether it will be upheld legally or not."
It’s significant that Branch announced his ruling before the league’s annual draft, which takes place Saturday. Aside from the third overall choice that was taken away, the Firebirds have the fifth overall choice and three in the second round of the draft. There were rumblings, though, that no prospects would report to the Firebirds given the current situation.
Every major player agency contacted by thn.com Thursday said it had either already informed the Firebirds that none of its players would report to Flint, or were told by parents of their players that they would balk at reporting to the organization. And even though the league has taken decisive action, it still leaves the organization in limbo. Nilsen has yet to comment on the sanctions, but it would be difficult to believe that there would not be some kind of appeal launched. Nilsen bought the franchise last year from Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos for a reported $6 million and moved it from Plymouth, Mich., to Flint. Nilsen also purchased the 4,000 seat Perini Arena in Flint as the team’s home.
That’s an awful lot of money to sit and watch with no control for five years. And three years is an awfully long time for the OHL to operate the team. Nilsen could relent and sell the team, but one source close to the situation said the price tag for the team and the arena would be somewhere in the $10 million (U.S.) range. A Norwegian industrialist, Nilsen faced a wildcat strike from the players in November when he tried to fire coach John Gruden over a lack of playing time for his son, Firebirds defenseman Hakon. Nilsen then signed Gruden to a three-year extension, only to fire him in February. That’s when the league stepped in and took over the franchise, something it will continue to do until a new owner is found.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t see it as a conclusion,” said Anton Thun of M5 Sports, which has several prospects in the draft. “As a lawyer, I’m not quite sure all the problems have been resolved. And as a lawyer, I wonder what rights the league has to do that and I wonder what the response will be from the owner. I think there are still a lot of questions and players who go there will still be in the middle of all of those.”
That’s why Thun said he’d still advise his clients to stay away from Flint until there is more clarity in the situation. That could happen over the summer after the draft and if that’s the case, players who are drafted who said they would not report might change their minds. But for now, Thun’s advice remains the same as it was prior to the sanctions, when his agency told the Firebirds not to draft any of its players, including highly ranked Pavel Gogolev.
“We have an obligation to our clients to put have them living and working in suitable circumstances,” Thun said. “We are here to provide guidance to young men and their families and not put them in a position where their well-being will be compromised.”
That was the message from virtually every other agency contacted by thn.com. Former NHLer Dave Gagner of the Orr Hockey Group said the parents of players represented by his agency have all said they would not report to Flint. One agent said prior to learning the sanctions that the OHL had asked agents to put their trust in the league to do the right thing. “My response to them was, ‘That’s great, but what if your one of my clients who has played his whole life to reach a goal and he goes to a place where he can’t develop?’ ” one agent said. “I mean, would you send your kid there?”
It’s also notable that Branch revoked the third overall pick and not the fifth. The third pick was the one Flint had because of its finish in the league. The fifth pick was a compensatory pick the Firebirds received for having to trade Ryan McLeod to the Mississauga Steelheads. McLeod, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, refused to report to the Firebirds when he was drafted. Teams in the OHL, though, are unable to gain compensatory picks two consecutive years, so it will receive none of them for players who don’t report this year. The Firebirds have the 23rd, 24th and 40th overall picks in the second round.
In other draft news, it has been confirmed by thn.con that defenseman Ryan Merkley, who turns 16 in August, will be drafted first overall by the Guelph Storm and will sign with the team shortly after the draft.