The Flint Firebirds Ontario Hockey League (OHL) franchise scored some huge victories off the ice in the Flint and Genesee County area during their inaugural 2015-16 season. Through their involvement in the community and promotions on game nights, the Firebirds raised more than $100,000 for Flint-area charities and nonprofit organizations.
“We are very proud of our charitable efforts,” Firebirds president Costa Papista says. “It was critical. When we first introduced the Flint Firebirds and the OHL to the community and to the local business leaders, that was something we communicated very strongly. We were going to be important partners and give back. We will continue to build off our solid foundation.”
“That’s just one element of our organization. The other piece is getting our players involved in the community with the schools and youth of Genesee County and the region. That’s something our players and coaches are committed to–the guys love interacting with our younger fans.”
Among the groups benefitting from the Firebirds’ efforts during their inaugural season were the American Cancer Society, Autism Awareness Center, Boy Scouts of America, Catholic Charities, Eastern Michigan Hockey Association, Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, Goodwill, Kris Perani Foundation, McLaren Foundation, the Old Newsboys of Flint, Salvation Army, Toys for Tots, United Way, Flint Optimist Club and the Whaley Children’s Foundation. The Firebirds raised $17,723 for the McLaren Foundation, $16,500 for the Old Newsboys and $11,447 for the United Way of Genesee County. This is just the beginning.
“We started planning our entire season’s promotion schedule and fundraising events,” says Susana Wight, Director of Community Relations and Marketing. “There are several events happening this season for our nonprofits. One thing I take a lot of pride in is making sure the funds we raise stay in Genesee County.”
“The other piece is getting our players involved in the community with the schools and youth of Genesee County and the region. That’s something our players and coaches are committed to the guys love interacting with our younger fans.”
During the off season, the Firebirds were involved in 85 community events in the Flint area. On August 8, the Firebirds had a presence at four different venues, including the two courses on which the McLaren Foundation held its annual golf fundraiser. “It was a very busy day, but positive,” Wight says. On August 20, the team was at events in Flint, Montrose and Lapeer. So much for the notion of an off season.
“We want to be all over the community,” Wight adds. “Also, from a business perspective, we are extremely busy selling season tickets and renewing corporate sponsorships. There’s really not a quiet time in our industry. As much as we’d like to say we don’t think about hockey in July, we do.”
The Firebirds were born in 2015 when Norwegian businessman Rolf Nilsen purchased the Plymouth Whalers and relocated them to Flint. He also purchased the former IMA Sports Arena, putting more than $3 million worth of renovations into the renamed Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center.
“I love my hockey,” Nilsen said. “You have to have some interests. I’ve been in serious business all these years. You have to have a passion. It happened to be hockey for me, besides ski jumping, but there’s not much ski jumping here in America.”
While acknowledging some challenges on and off the ice during the Firebirds’ first season, Nilsen believes a solid foundation was set for future success. “People are supporting us, which I really appreciate,” Nilsen said. “In Flint, they have a long tradition with great hockey. For the organization to move to Flint from Plymouth, I feel like we’ve done the right thing.”
The Firebirds received commitments from all three of their top OHL draft picks this summer: first-rounder Ty Dellandrea, and second-rounders Dennis Busby and Hunter Holmes. George Burnett is the teams’ new general manager. Burnett has nearly twenty years of OHL experience under his belt as well as a coaching experience in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers.
“The message at orientation camp with the new families and prospects was simple. You will be in an environment where you can develop, not only as a hockey player but as a young man. If families are able to make informed decisions once they have all the information and people are buying in and committing, we’re heading in the right direction and I am excited for our future.”
New head coach Ryan Oulahen, 31, is a former Detroit Red Wings prospect whose professional playing career was cut short by an injury. He played in the OHL for Brampton, returning there as an associate coach after his playing days ended.
“Working with this level can be a very rewarding experience,” Oulahen says. “I know how important it is not just to develop hockey players here, but also to develop young men. You get as much reward from the guy who plays for you and has a great career and then goes on to school and becomes a lawyer and is successful in life, who takes on the things he learned in the program and applies them to his life skills. Those guys are the ones you’re as proud of as the first-round NHL draft picks making millions of dollars.”
Oulahen’s coaching philosophy is based on the fundamentals of hard work and discipline. “I want teams to know when they come into Flint that this is going to be a tough game,” he says. “My experience in the OHL is that there are certain buildings where you know it’s going to be a tough game you’re going into.”
The Firebirds did have two players taken in the NHL entry draft this past summer. Will Bitten, recently traded to Hamilton, was chosen 70th overall in the third round by the Montreal Canadiens. Nick Caamano was chosen 146th overall in the fifth round by the Dallas Stars.
“It’s a big sigh of relief, but it’s only a stepping stone,” Caamano said. “I know I’ve got to work that much harder to get to the next level. You see a bunch of guys I skate with in the summertime, a bunch of NHL’ers. You see how hard they work. It’s eye-opening. I try to learn from that.”
The Firebirds opened their second season September 21 with a 4-0 victory over I-75 rival Saginaw. They had shutouts in their first two home games, blanking Owen Sound, 2-0, on September 24.
Tickets to Firebirds games start at just $12 dollars. Fans may purchase online via Ticketmaster.com or at the Dort Federal Event Center Box Office. The season runs through the middle of March with the majority of home games on weekends and holiday dates. The Firebirds website is an excellent resource for schedules and all team information. www.flintfirebirds.com