OHL suspends Flint Firebirds owner for five years, issues more penalties

The Ontario Hockey League has suspended one of its owners for five years and issued heavy penalties in the latest twist in what has been one of the strangest unraveling dramas in hockey this year.

The Flint Firebirds have been a junior hockey soap opera in their first season in the OHL. At the center of it all is owner Rolf Nilsen, an extremely successful businessman who bought the Plymouth Whalers franchise and moved it to Flint, Michigan, last summer.

After Nilsen shockingly fired the coaching staff after just 17 games this season, the players reportedly staged a walkout in protest. The OHL stepped in at that point and worked out a deal with the owner to reinstate the coaching staff. The league also apparently drew up an agreement with Nilsen that prevented him from interfering in certain aspects of the team as a measure to keep things moving as smoothly as possible.

Then the coaches were fired a second time in February. There was no walkout this time, but the OHL stepped in again after expressing "great concern" over how things transpired. Nilsen and his associates were suspended from contact with the team until the league could conduct a full investigation.

The league announced Wednesday that it has concluded that investigation, executed by a third party law firm, and has issued heavy penalties against Nilsen and the Firebirds organization.

Here is the statement from OHL commissioner David Branch detailing the punishment the league has levied against Nilsen and the team:

Based upon an investigation at my request by Terrence O’Sullivan of the law firm of Lax O’Sullivan Lisus Gottlieb LLP, I am satisfied that Rolf Nilsen of the Flint Firebirds has on several occasions violated an agreement he signed on the 11th day of November, 2015, between himself and the OHL.  Those violations are contrary to the best interests of the players, the Team, and the OHL.

In view of these findings, in accordance with the OHL Constitution, I have ordered that:

Rolf Nilsen be suspended by the OHL from being involved directly or indirectly with hockey operations of the Flint Firebirds for five (5) years effective immediately;

The Flint Firebirds forfeit a first round draft pick in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection (third pick overall);

A fine be paid by Rolf Nilsen to the League in the amount of Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars ($250,000.00).

If it is determined by the League that Rolf Nilsen has violated this Order, the League may order Rolf Nilsen to sell one hundred percent (100%) of the ownership interest of the Flint Firebirds.

Furthermore, Rolf Nilsen may after three (3) years apply for reinstatement to participate in hockey operations of the Flint Firebirds.

This is a harsh, but probably necessary punishment given the turmoil the owner caused the players, most of whom are teenagers.

If you have been following the story since the beginning, you'll know that Nilsen's initial firing of the coaching staff was said to be regarding his displeasure the ice time his son, Hakon, was getting. Hakon Nilsen is a rookie defenseman on the team who registered four assists in 45 games this season. 

The league had to assume operations of the club in February after it suspended Rolf Nilsen pending their review.

With these most recent sanctions, however, it appears that the OHL may be trying to indirectly force Nilsen to sell the team, as it appears that Nilsen stands little to gain by continuing to own the team unless he saw a long future in junior hockey. The league has already installed Joe Birch as the team's director of hockey operations and will give him the authority to hire a new general manager and head coach. Birch helped guide the team through this tumultous end to the season at the league's request.

The steps punishing Nilsen were necessary, but the OHL also opted to take away the third overall pick for the team. If Nilsen isn't legally able to run things, then that hurts the players that will have no choice but to play there next season. And the franchise is struggling mightily on the ice. The Firebirds did not reach the OHL playoffs this year after finishing ninth in the Western Conference with a 20-42-4-2 record.

However, reports surfaced earlier in the week that agents and family advisers were telling the OHL that their clients will not be reporting to Flint if drafted there. The OHL Priority Selection Draft is scheduled for Saturday. The team also owns the fifth overall selection in the draft. They may be fighting a losing battle even if they did have the No. 3 pick this year. They may not have been able to get the player selected that high anyway.

If they're trying to get Nilsen to sell, they've put together some pretty compelling reasons as to why he should. It's hard to see a path for him to retain his franchise at this point, given the reputation he has developed.

When it comes to junior hockey, these teams are dealing with the futures of teenage hockey players that they don't really pay. They give small stipends and offer to pay for education for the players that don't go to the pros, but they have a deeper responsibility than just that.

The owners obviously have to work in the best interest of their business, but if the players aren't being taken care of properly, something has to be done. The OHL had no choice but to step in and now they'll have to think back if there was anything they could have done to prevent this mess from happening in the first place.

The Ontario Hockey League has issued some major penalties against one of their owners. (USATSI)
The Ontario Hockey League has issued some major penalties against one of its owners. (USATSI)

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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