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OHL's Flint Firebirds get their coaches back; show the power of unity

After last night's dramatic events surrounding the junior franchise, the Flint ownership has reinstated the jobs of coach John Gruden and his staff. It's great news for the players in Flint and for junior athletes across the continent.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

As reported by local journalist Ryan Slocum, the Flint Firebirds have reinstated the junior team's coaching staff after a mass walkout by the team's players. It's a crazy development in what was already a bizarre story that unfolded in less than a day, but if there is a silver lining, it's that the players on the team came together for something they believed in and won.

As a quick recap, Flint owner Rolf Nilsen fired coach John Gruden and his staff after a win over Oshawa, allegedly because Nilsen's son wasn't getting enough ice time. The players took up for their coach and reportedly quit as a group (Hakon Nilsen, the son in question, quit along with his teammates).

An emergency meeting came together this morning and the end result was Gruden and his coaches getting their jobs back. Pretty remarkable stuff, and coincidentally coming the same day the University of Missouri's president resigned under pressure from the school's football team. In that situation, the "athletes of color" on the Tigers threatened not to play due to a series of racist incidents on the campus that they believed were not dealt with appropriately by president Tim Wolfe. The Missouri coaching staff (and based on a picture Tweeted out by the head coach, the team's white players) supported the striking contingent and sure enough, Wolfe has now stepped down.

In a time where the treatment of college athletes and major junior players is a constant debate, score today as a big win for the players in both football and hockey. Powerful player agent Allan Walsh made his support for player action known on Twitter and when it comes to the CHL, the most obvious takeaway from the Flint mutiny is that a group of players – mostly teenagers – do deserve a collective voice.

There have been attempts at a union drive in the past, but none that carried legitimacy for very long. For me, I want the leadership to be driven by those with experience and the players' best interests in mind. That means the NHLPA or PHPA (the union for players in the AHL and ECHL) and/or player agents, who have an interest both professionally and personally in getting the best for these kids.

Because this is a vulnerable group right now. Hockey culture tells you to keep your head down and don't make any waves and that goes double for players whose NHL dreams are ahead of them. The uniqueness of junior's age bracket means that continuity in any such union would be impossible – the longest a player could be an active member is five years – so trusted adults would be key. But there's no reason teams couldn't have individual reps who could convene through social media, conference calls or any other sorts of readily available technology to make their voices heard to leadership.

Had the Flint players simply put their heads down when Gruden was fired, a good coach would still be out of a job today. But the Firebirds stood up for what they believed in and the junior hockey world is a better place because of it.


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