The Colorado Avalanche have wrapped up their four-game road trip, scoring wins against the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals. They will see some familiar faces this week, as they face the recently-visited Pittsburgh Penguins and those same Panthers during the upcoming three-game home stand (though not necessarily in that order).
In this installment of Vlad’s View, I chronicle my recent trip out east, setting my sights on the Ontario Hockey League to take a look at some of the promising young talent of today striving to become the National Hockey League’s stars of tomorrow. Through the span of three days, I covered three OHL matchups; here’s a look back at my second stop in the city of Flint, Michigan.
Today’s adventure begins in Utica, Michigan, on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. Today’s lunchtime excursion would see me revisit another local institution of tasty repute.
This is a footlong sandwich from DiBella’s, a regional sandwich chain. While mammoth sandwich chains aren’t uncommon, some incredibly tasty delights can be found in their smaller, more localized counterparts. The sandwich above is known as the Cowboy: grilled chicken and sliced bacon topped with barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese. I chose to get this sandwich on sesame, and even though it certainly doesn’t have the same cultural stature as the poutine I sampled north of the border, it was definitely a filling choice!
The weather remained drizzly throughout the afternoon and, as I set out for Flint, the rain had begun to turn to snow. However, I was not about to let a little Michigan snowstorm stop me from making my appointed trip to visit the Flint Firebirds tonight! Thankfully, there was no need to take an indirect route up to Flint, as it’s a straight shot north from Detroit. However, there was one stop requiring the detour route below: dinner.
I caught wind of a Michigan institution known as Halo Burger. Full disclosure: I am not a hamburger connoisseur. I do enjoy a good hamburger, yes, but I have not experienced some of the more acclaimed–can a hamburger be acclaimed?–offerings such as In-N-Out Burger. As far as local Denver institutions go, I’m in the Good Times burger camp (although there’s a great hole in the wall spot in Sedalia that I’m quite fond of, but I digress), so my palate may yet need a bit more seasoning.
Halo Burger boasts of serving Michigan’s best burger for close to a century. While I would love to sing the praises of Halo Burger for that reason, I would be fibbing if I did so. That’s not to say that the combo meal seen below wasn’t delicious; it certainly was, but it wasn’t exactly memorable. No, really! even after eating this combo meal, I don’t even remember what was in it, and that was after going back to Halo Burger’s website to try and jog my memory. It was just..an okay burger, and for an institution claiming bragging rights of serving the best burger to Michiganders for nearly one hundred years, it wasn’t exactly something to write home about (yet, I’m doing so anyway).
The Flint Firebirds play at Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center. The building’s exterior doesn’t give the impression of being a hockey venue; in fact, I was left with the impression that this building once served as a school at one point before being repurposed as a hockey arena. Surprisingly, it was never a school at any point during its lifetime, and has been a community fixture for over forty years, according to the DORT Federal Credit Union Event Center website. Like its counterpart in Sarnia, the sight lines here are very good from practically any seat in the building and also has select areas for standing room only tickets. There is a smaller amount of skybox suites in building, however, given the age and layout of the building. It is very easy to get around the concourse of the building, and seating is slightly more spacious compared to Progressive Auto Sales Arena.
There are fewer seats in Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center compared to Progressive Auto Sales Arena, though, as this building holds just around 4,500 seats. There are fewer concessions in the arena, and unfortunately, no poutinerie. Sorry, everyone.
Prior to their existence in Flint, the Firebirds previously played in Plymouth as the Plymouth Whalers (more information about the move and the circumstances around it can be found here). The city of Flint is no stranger to hockey, having been home to other pro hockey teams in the past, most notably the Flint Generals (more information about Flint’s hockey history can be found here).
A Firestorm of Controversy in Flint
The Firebirds franchise has been embroiled in quite a bit of notoriety during its short time in Flint: in November 2015, owner Rolf Nilsen fired the entire Flint coaching staff, only to have the entire roster (including Nilsen’s son, who was an active player for the Firebirds), storm Nilsen’s office, throw their jerseys on the floor, and quit the team in protest of the decision (which can be read about here). The very next day, Nilsen re-hired the coaching staff and extended their contracts (which can be read about here), only to fire head coach John Gruden and assistant coach Dave Karpa three months later (which can be read about here).
But wait, there’s more: the very next day after Nilsen fired Gruden and Karpa, Nilsen’s appointees in Firebirds management and the coaching staff, including Nilsen himself, were suspended by OHL Commissioner David Branch (which can be read about here). In April 2016, the OHL assumed control of the franchise and issued Nilsen a five-year suspension along with a $250,000 fine (more on this can be read about here). A new general manager and coaching staff were hired a month later (which can be read about here).
Why bring up this backstory of the franchise? It’s an absolutely fascinating story, and one that certainly gives this franchise an “underdog” kind of label. After being thrown into a terrible ordeal by the team’s owner, who wouldn’t want a happy storybook ending for these kids? Maybe I’d see a sneak peek at that storybook ending during tonight’s contest!
Tonight’s contest pitted the hometown Firebirds against the Memorial Cup runner-up Erie Otters. Erie enjoyed a successful 2016-2017 season, garnering many accolades along the way. Their season ended at the Memorial Cup tournament, falling to the Windsor Spitfires in the championship round. The Otters have had trouble finding their groove heading into this game, as they had a 8-10-2-1 record coming into tonight’s game. The Firebirds have also struggled this season, placing last in the OHL’s Western Conference standings with a 7-11-2-0 record, but only three points behind Erie with a game in hand prior to tonight’s contest.
Some of the names on both rosters have already caught the eyes of scouts from around the NHL. Erie Otters right wing Taylor Raddysh and defenseman Jordan Sambrook were selected in the 2016 NHL Draft (Raddysh was a second round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Lightning, while Sambrook was a fifth round selection of the Detroit Red Wings), while center Ivan Lodnia was a third round draft choice of the Minnesota Wild this past June.
Flint Firebirds left wing Nicholas Caamano and defenseman Nicolas Mattinen were also part of the 2016 draft class (Caamano was a fifth round selection of the Dallas Stars, while Mattinen was a sixth round selection of the Toronto Maple Leafs), and defenseman Fedor Gordeev was a fifth round draft choice for Toronto this past June.
There are Avalanche alumni from both clubs: former center Ryan O’Reilly was an Erie product, while former center John Mitchell played for the Firebirds when the franchise was known as the Plymouth Whalers. The Avalanche also drafted former Whalers defenseman David Liffiton (2003), center/right wing Garrett Meurs (2011), and center Mitch Heard (2012). Former Whalers goaltender Jason Bacashihua spent parts of three seasons with the Lake Erie Monsters during its affiliation with the Avalanche. Finally, left wing Nic Beaudoin was selected in the 1995 draft by the Avalanche when the Plymouth franchise was known as the (shudder) Detroit Junior Red Wings.
The hockey mascot landscape certainly has a healthy avian population, and the Firebirds have one of the latest additions to this flock in their mascot Hot Wing. He can be seen in the stands and around the concourse of Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center, entertaining fans young and old alike. The feathered mascot “hatched”–with the help of some brave young men–shortly after the Firebirds’ debut in 2015, which is chronicled in the video below.
The first period had a fairly quiet beginning, even with both teams getting a chance to strike early with the man advantage. The game remained scoreless until Lodnia broke through for Erie, giving them a 1-0 lead moments before the halfway point of the period. Special teams were the theme of the first, with both teams taking three minor penalties apiece. Neither team would yield on the penalty kill, and Erie took their one goal lead into the first intermission.
There was no trip to the Firebirds’ gift shop during the first intermission; instead, I found myself engaging in pleasantries with the spectators in the row behind me. As it would turn out, they happened to be relatives of Joseph Mack, one of the Erie skaters. I explained to them where I was from and that this brand of hockey wasn’t something we have at home in Denver. They seemed a little bit in awe of me traveling so far to watch a Canadian league game! I found them absolutely delightful to chat with, and they certainly showed a lot of pride in pulling for Mack throughout the game.
With Raddysh in the box at the start of the second period, Flint’s opportunity to tie the game on the power play was nullified by a Caamano tripping minor. Flint would get on the board with a goal by Mattinen, tying the game at one a couple of minutes past the halfway point of regulation. Erie would push back two minutes later, regaining the lead on a goal by defenseman Owen Headrick. Sambrook would extend Erie’s lead just over a minute later, sending Erie into the second intermission with a 3-1 lead.
A cross-checking minor committed by Flint center Ryan Moore shortly after the start of the third period put the Firebirds on the penalty kill. Erie left wing Maxim Golod would capitalize, putting the Otters up 4-1. Despite the deficit, Flint poured the shots on Erie goalie Troy Timpano in an urgent bid to generate some offense. Flint would return to the power play on a check to the head penalty committed by Erie center Carson Edwardson, and the Firebirds certainly showed displeasure with the infraction.
Dellandrea would finally break through for Flint on the power play in the later stages of the period, cutting the deficit to 4-2. Flint goalie Luke Cavallin was pulled for the extra skater in the final minute in a last-ditch bid to tie the game, but Raddysh would fire the puck into the empty net, putting the game out of reach for Flint and sending his Erie teammates to the locker room with the 5-2 victory. Headrick and Timpano would finish as the game’s first and second star for Erie, respectively, while Mattinen would finish as the game’s third star for Flint.
As I mentioned in my previous installment, having a smaller venue can create an intimate atmosphere which, in the right conditions, can really enhance the hockey experience. Tonight, I saw many empty seats in Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center. Instead of intimacy, the impression that I was left with was one of vacancy. Flint has a hockey history spanning several decades, and even though the Firebirds may not boast the array of talent matching that of other clubs, they do have an entertaining on-ice product. As I mentioned earlier, this franchise has been through a lot of turbulence after its relocation from Plymouth, and having the city embrace these young kids would certainly go a long way.
Erie certainly didn’t play like a sub-.500 team tonight, while Flint certainly looked the part of a last-place team in the OHL Western Conference. Even with Erie’s slow start, they certainly have a fair amount of talent and enough time in the season to build momentum in a bid to return to the Memorial Cup. As for Flint, its hometown team has a long way to go before it can become part of that conversation. I’m hopeful that the Firebirds can lay claim to that storybook ending that would be fitting of their rocky beginnings, but it won’t happen any time soon.
A return to Windsor and a highly anticipated showdown between two rival franchises!
Thanks for reading!
(Thanks to the Detroit Free Press, eliteprospects.com, ontariohockeyleague.com, The Flint Journal, and TSN.ca for furnishing statistics, draft info, and other game notes used to compile this article!)