Former Bulldogs Gruden, Karpa preparing for first season with Firebirds

COACH: Former Bulldog John Gruden coaches for the U.S. National Team Development Program last season. He was named head coach of the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League in March. (Courtesy photo/Andrew Knapik/MiHockey.com)

COACH: Former Bulldog John Gruden coaches for the U.S. National Team Development Program last season. He was named head coach of the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League in March. (Courtesy photo/Andrew Knapik/MiHockey.com)

FLINT — John Gruden and Dave Karpa were teammates and defensive partners on the Ferris State University hockey team from 1990-92.

Now, 24 years later, the duo will reunite with the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League, a major junior hockey and top NHL feeder league. Gruden was named the franchise’s first head coach in March, and Karpa will be an assistant coach.

“It’s going to be great,” Karpa said. “When I found out he got named head coach, I reached out to him and really expressed a lot of interest. I kept talking with him for a couple months before he made his decision. I’m very much looking forward to the opportunity of coaching with John.”
Gruden, 45, played four seasons with FSU before turning pro, but Karpa, 44, opted to sign a pro contract with the Quebec Nordiques after his sophomore campaign. Gruden tallied 104 points in 155 games with the Bulldogs, while Karpa had 44 points in 75 games.

KARPA

KARPA

They remained in contact for a few years after their collegiate careers, but when Karpa signed with the Anaheim Ducks and moved to the West Coast, their communication waned.

Karpa played in 557 NHL games from 1992-2003, recording 18 goals and 80 assists. Gruden played in 92 NHL games with the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins, but the former Bulldogs did not cross paths again until after their pro careers.

“There was a little bit (of communication) in the beginning when we were both playing in the NHL, then I went out west to Anaheim and stayed out there after my career was over,” Karpa said. “I recently moved back to the Chicago area, though, and I’ve seen him twice through youth hockey, running into him at a couple of tournaments. He’s got a kid who is a 2000 (birth year) and my kids are 2002’s, so I’ve ran into him once or twice over the last two years.”

Karpa, who is moving to Genesee County next week, has spent the past few years coaching youth and high school hockey, while Gruden spent the past four seasons as an assistant coach for the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor. Gruden also was the head coach for Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice High School from 2005-07 and Rochester Hills Stoney Creek High School (2007-10).

“I’m very excited for this opportunity,” Gruden said of coaching the Firebirds. “I’ve been with the development program for four years, developing defenseman and having some success with Danton Cole, the head coach. One thing I realized was how hard you have to work as a coach, and you have to love it. So here I am, excited to try and help these kids get better and develop, and also get the community excited about something special going on here in Genesee County.”

The Firebirds, formerly the Plymouth Whalers, relocated to Flint in February. The team struggled last season, finishing 23-38-5-2.

“Obviously, they’re coming off a pretty tough year,” Gruden said. “They (the players) are changing different cities, but as head coaches, we have to change the culture. We have to make sure they understand how much commitment they need and how hard we will work for them so we can win games and they can become better players.”

Gruden said he is up to the challenge.

GRUDEN: John Gruden skates as a member of the Ferris State University hockey team. (Courtesy photo/Ferris State Athletics)

GRUDEN: John Gruden skates as a member of the Ferris State University hockey team. (Courtesy photo/Ferris State Athletics)z

“Every head coach has to start off and get an opportunity at one point, right?” Gruden said. “Having been a player and now having coached for as long as I have as an assistant and at the high school level, I’ll put my own spin on coaching from what I’ve learned being a player getting coached, and working with Danton. You have to put in so many hours, but it’s so much fun to see guys get better, and that’s basically what I’ve done the last four years. To see where they are as young 16, 17 year olds, and then see them grow into young men, that’s a challenge ahead. But as a coach, you do it to make a difference. Hopefully we can develop some hockey players and win some games.”

The OHL’s only other team in Michigan — the Saginaw Spirit — is located about 35 miles north of Flint. The two teams open the season with a home-and-home matchup on Sept. 24 and 26.

“I think the people who have lived in the communities of Flint and Saginaw, there’s always been a rivalry from back in the International Hockey League days and United Hockey League days,” said Gruden, referring to the Flint Generals and Saginaw Gears, which played in the IHL and UHL before the leagues folded. “There was obviously a rivalry that was there, and we will try and spark that back up. Hopefully both cities will see some really good hockey.”

The Firebirds open training camp on Aug. 31.

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Posted by Ryan Zuke

Ryan is the sports editor for the Big Rapids Pioneer, covering local prep sports and Ferris State athletics. He can be contacted at (231) 592-8363 or rzuke@pioneergroup.com.

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