There are four seasons in Michigan: football, basketball, baseball and hockey. Outside of Canada, the passion for hockey burns the brightest in Michigan. Just an hour north of Detroit, which is nicknamed “Hockeytown, USA,” the love for Flint hockey burns strong in the hearts of the people here.
There is not just an undeniable love for the sport: There’s an abundance of sheer talent and hockey history in Flint, too. The county is home to inspirational USA Olympic hockey greats such as Ken Morrow, Tim Thomas, and Brian Rolston.
Dort Federal Event Center, which has been home to various Flint hockey teams since 1969, was previously named after Bob Perani. Perani was the owner of Perani’s Hockey World, a sports equipment retailer founded in the area. After moving to Flint from Italy in the 1960s, Perani was a professional goaltender for the Flint Generals from 1969 to 1974. His jersey is one of only five numbers retired by the team, and he has been a much-loved figure in the community, believing in its future and its passion for hockey.
This history of community support paid off for the city when the Plymouth Whalers franchise was up for sale in 2014. Investor Rolf Nilsen bought the team and decided to move it to Flint after experiencing the locals’ deep love for hockey first-hand. He invited the Red Wings to play their alumni game against the Flint Generals in what was then Perani Arena, and the event was a massive success. It wasn’t easy to convince league owners to allow the team to move to Flint, as the city had—and still does have—its share of bumps, bruises, and bad press. The owners agreed to visit the city though. Once they saw for themselves the Cultural Center and Flint’s potential, it was a unanimous decision to move.
A New Start in Flint
After the purchase of the Plymouth Whalers franchise, ownership opened up the naming of the new team to the public. Over 5,000 people wrote in their suggestions—38 of whom suggested the name “Firebirds.” This name is symbolic of the of the city’s past and its future. It invokes memories of the time when Flint was once a flourishing area thanks to the booming auto industry. It also conjures the image of the mythological phoenix. The phoenix, a bird known for rising from the ashes of its past, is a symbol of renewal, which is what Flint hockey hopes to bring to this city—rebirth.
This rebirth has already begun for the team as well as the community. The Flint Firebirds made massive improvements to the Dort Federal Event Center that make it feel brand new. The locker rooms were updated, both for home and away teams. Signage inside and out has been improved. A state-of-the-art Media Suite has been added for scouts and reporters. A new four-sided high-resolution display has been installed in the center of the arena. Even the Blue Line Club now offers a unique experience for small gatherings. The Flint Journal captured many of the these improvements in their online gallery.
Team president, Costa Papista, is also making a difference for the team and the community. Papista’s hockey expertise is recognized in the area, as he helped “launch the Saginaw Spirit in 2002.” As this team enters their second season on the ice, he’s helping guide the way.
Papista, a former player for the London Knights, stands 6 feet tall with strong arms and hands. Even though I imagine he is a formidable opponent on the ice, he was nothing but warm and gracious in person. When I asked Papista for an interview, he invited me to a local coffee shop and greeted me with a hug. He was genuine to not only myself, but also to the wait staff and other customers in the lobby, and didn’t miss a beat when others said hello.
Papista explained that the Flint Firebirds team is part of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), which he calls “the best player development franchise in the world. These young men are on a fast track to professional hockey.” Many great names have come out of the OHL franchise: Gretzky, Yzermen, Shanahan, McCarty. The National Hockey League (NHL) has already drafted some of these young men to play professional hockey in future seasons. When draft day comes, they will declare their home not as Finland or Canada, but as Flint.
Touted as the best emerging players in the world, these young men range in ages from 16-20 years old. In other words, some of the Flint Firebirds’ players are still in high school. Because of this, many local families open their homes, hearts, and refrigerators to these young men from Canada and around the world. These host families in Flint not only shuttle their new additions between school and practice, but they also do everything in their power to care for their well-being.
The Team Gives Back to Community
The Flint Firebirds open their hearts to Flint in return for this kindness. Papsita said, “Our goal was, on the non-hockey side, to become part of the community and do everything we can to quickly become part of the fabric of Flint.” In their first year as a franchise, the Flint Firebirds donated over 700 pounds of food to the local food bank, did a water drive for the city in November and collected teddy bears for Hurley Medical Center and police agencies. In one year, they had contributed over $50,000 in donations to local charities, and they hope to increase this amount in coming years.
Even though the Flint hockey franchise owns the Dort Federal Event Center outright, Papsita said that their philosophy is “to make the building really, truly a community building.” In addition to the ice arena, there is an additional 27,000 square-foot multi-purpose area for youth soccer, softball, baseball and lacrosse. Other organizations use the multi-purpose area for trade shows and events as well. The Dort Federal Event Center is open daily for the community to use as a safe place to walk laps.
Flint Firebirds take their role in helping during the Flint Water Crisis very seriously. They are a dedicated water distribution site 6 days a week, and the arena side hosted the “Comedy Get Down Tour” benefit in early 2016. Comedians George Lopez, Charlie Murphy, Eddie Griffin, Cedric the Entertainer, and D.L. Hughley performed there in February, and 100% of the proceeds went to the Flint Child Health and Development Fund. Local doctors started this fund to aid in the repercussions of the Flint Water Crisis.”Our ultimate goal is to get the building back on the map for national promoters,” said Papsita.
The Flint Firebirds set ticket prices low, expressly with the community in mind. While Red Wings tickets can be more than $50 a piece, Flint Firebirds tickets range from $12-$19. They also offer discounts for kids, students, seniors, and military. Tickets are so affordable that Flint fans in Canada are usually able to make the drive to the arena every weekend. Attendees can also “Tweet their Seat” to win prizes throughout the game. The Flint hockey franchise strongly encourages audience members to tweet #BelieveInFlint to help Flint trend in a positive way.
Speaking as someone who lives in the area, I can say that we are grateful. We’re grateful that someone is investing in our city. We’re grateful that someone has the vision to see the potential of what we can become. We’re grateful that Costa Papista and the OHL #BelieveInFlint. For that very reason, this Flintstone will continue to believe in the Flint Firebirds and root them on for every goal.