Flint Firebirds vs. Mississauga Steelheads (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)
It certainly didn't take the Flint Firebirds long to make their point. The day after all the players on the team - including the owner's son - quit en masse, the coaches were reinstated and offered three-year deals.
Let’s just take a moment to ponder what those courageous young men who play for the Flint Firebirds accomplished Sunday night when they marched up to the team’s front office and dropped their sweaters on the floor. Because both the character and gumption they displayed and the results they accrued are nothing short of remarkable.
Not only did they manage to get their fired coaches reinstated, the coaches were minted with new three-year contracts. And league commissioner David Branch rushed to the scene to staunch the bleeding and ensure that all the affected had their feelings assuaged. The owner of the team publicly apologized for making a rash and irresponsible decision to fire his coaches, apparently because they weren’t giving his son enough ice time. And it seemed to happen in record time. Good for those young men who, in some ways, displayed the same courage Ted Lindsay, Doug Harvey and a small cabal of players did when they stood up to the owners almost 60 years ago to plant the seed that germinated into the NHL Players’ Association.
Until now, the notion that teenagers would be able to form a coalition to force their employers to improve their working conditions seemed to be an unwieldy pipe dream. But then the Flint Firebirds happened. If a group of 24 players can accomplish this much in such a short time with one monumental gesture, think about what they would be able to do if someone were able to mobilize and organize them.
The Firebirds proved something very important on Monday. And that is, the players now know they are the show. They came to the realization that if they could present a united front – and good on 17-year-old Hakon Nilsen, son of team owner Rolf Nilsen for siding with his teammates instead of his father – team management would have no choice but to back down. This one gesture and the outcome it created should have a number of owners and operators of junior hockey teams a little more nervous today than they were last weekend.
In many ways, there has never been a better time for major junior players to unionize than right now. They are emboldened. They are slowly coming to the realization that perhaps the teams and leagues that make money from them need them as much as they need the teams to help them fulfill their hockey dreams. What they could use now more than anything is someone to rally them. Perhaps that’s the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association, a mysterious entity that sends out tweets and news releases, but is hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s a player agent or a group of them. Or it could even be the NHL Players’ Association, which could restructure itself to represent players from junior hockey all the way through their NHL careers.
As I was writing this, I was also tuning in to the first game of the CHL’s Canada-Russia Series from Kelowna. It looked like a decent crowd with patrons paying about 20 bucks a pop and there was advertising everywhere the eye could see. On the broadcast, I saw commercials for Bridgestone, Winmar Property Restoration Specialists, Tim Hortons, Travelodge, MasterCard, Old Spice and, my personal favorite, Arctic Spas, which is the official spa of the CHL. Clearly there are people who are making money off this event, but we know that the players are not among them. Same goes for the World Junior Championship when it’s in Canada and generates millions of dollars in revenues, all-star games and the Memorial Cup. The best players spend much of their summers going to tryout camps and are often forced to jam a lot of hockey into little time. For example, because of the Canada-Russia Series, four members of the Brandon Wheat Kings, including 17-year-old Nolan Patrick, will have played five games in six nights.
In exchange for that, the players receive pay that is less than minimum wage, not including their housing expenses, equipment and post-secondary scholarships. They get to display their skills in the best development league in the world for scouts who attend every game and if they are one of the top 10 percent, they might get a chance to parlay that into an NHL career.
It’s not enough, simply not enough. Not when some teams are selling out buildings and maxing out on corporate sponsors. There is not a job that parents of teenagers would allow their children to take that would offer similar pittances, but when it comes to hockey, well, there’s a dream there that has to be pursued at all costs. And if there are those who want to use that dream to give them far less than what they’re worth, that’s the cost of chasing that dream.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Firebirds proved that emphatically on Sunday night when they flexed their muscles and brought upon quick change and damage control. There is even more strength in bigger numbers.