Last time PPP spoke to Solar Bears head coach Anthony Noreen and (then) president Jason Siegel, there was a lot that was left unsaid. PPP asked Siegel about the renewed affiliation and were told, "Until we have a deal, we won't have a deal. That's today -- that's April 14. I don't want to over- or under-dramatize the response to your question."
Today it is May 5, and not only has the affiliation been renewed, but Siegel has stepped down from his position as Solar Bears president.
News of the change in organization infrastructure broke on May 3, when a press release was issued that stated that daily duties would be handled by owner and chairman Joe Haleski:
Jason Siegel will step down as President/CEO effective immediately in order to pursue other interests. The organization's Chairman and majority owner, Joe Haleski, will manage the day-to-day operations of the franchise and assume the responsibilities of CEO.
Thus far, Haleski has not attended to the day-to-day decisions of the organization, leaving it in Siegel's hands. Siegel's role with the organization helped to make it a successful franchise through its first four seasons after returning to Orlando and joining the ECHL, and the news that he stepped down was a surprise to many.
The Solar Bears' success as a developmental franchise for the Leafs system has caused AGM Kyle Dubas to call it "the best franchise in the ECHL," and most recently, laud the partnership. In the press release about Toronto's reaffiliation with the Solar Bears, he mentions ownership directly: "We've been extremely happy in the development of our prospects and in also working with head coach Anthony Noreen and the Orlando ownership and management."
In the past season, the Solar Bears have met with mixed success in its league, perhaps due to operating in one of the most competitive divisions in the ECHL. Although Garret Sparks carried the team to a playoff berth in 2015, the Bears were ousted in the most painful of losses -- a single overtime goal in game 7, to the Florida Everblades. This season, with a new coach, the Solar Bears struggled to find consistency at home. Could it also have been due to a constantly destabilized lineup?
The press release hints at it:
Last season, 16 players in the Maple Leafs/Marlies pipeline appeared in games with the Solar Bears: Zach Bell, Erik Bradford, Christopher Clapperton, Eric Faille, Brett Findlay, T.J. Foster, Rob Madore, James Martin, Brenden Miller, Max Nicastro, Jack Rodewald, Matt Rupert, Ryan Rupert, Garret Sparks, Brady Vail and Patrick Watling. Additionally, three players under ECHL contracts with Orlando received Professional Try-Out Agreements with the Marlies and played in AHL games, including Eric Baier, Ryan Massa and Rylan Schwartz.
These players benefited the Leafs' middle child, the Toronto Marlies, according to Dubas: "There have been a number of players called up from Orlando who have helped contribute to a successful Marlies season."
Will the Solar Bears gain anything from the affiliation? Noreen cited constant communication with Dubas and people in the Leafs system as aiding his own growth as a coach throughout the season, and mentioned that the affiliation provided the Bears organization with additional resources, such as analytical breakdowns of each player, to use as tools for coaching.
The players will also surely take heart at the affiliation, looking no farther than Sparks for incentive to keep playing in a professional career at any level, and to try to improve their game and rise through the ranks.
The affiliation also bodes well for raising GTA interest in the six games that the team will play against the Brampton Beast. Last season the Bears defeated the Habs' ECHL affiliate in a three-game series sweep, and hopefully the trend will continue. (See more of the Solar Bears' schedule here.)
With rumors of Noreen departing to coach a college team put to rest, next year looks to be an interesting one in club history, as we watch for continued growth in players, coach, and affiliation.