Last week, I watched a tense, hopeful Solar Bears game at Amway Center. It had everything -- the Solar Bears falling behind, only to surge ahead, driven by the scrappy, physical efforts of F Zach Bell. Ahead by a seemingly impossible-to-defeat margin, the Solar Bears suffered defensive breakdowns that gave up goal after goal to the Swamp Rabbits in the third, until they finally lost in the last three seconds of the game.
The game revealed tendencies that the team has been showing all season -- the ability to play excellent hockey when fully engaged, and mental lapses when the team plays with a lead. The Swamp Rabbits won, 6-5, handing Orlando their fifth loss in a row.
"We're upset, all of us," Coach Anthony Noreen said about the game, "It's a little bit of a surreal thing when something like that happens. You feel like you've got everything going, you're OK, you calm the mood on the bench when they fight back to make it 5-5. I thought at the point it was 5-5, did we give some chances up? Yeah, but we generated some too. We were pretty even keeled on the bench, you give one up late like that in a game you knew you needed pretty badly, I think it's human nature to feel down about it."
Bell, whose fight off the opening face-off of the second period helped to spur the Solar Bears offense, found the game a tough one to swallow. "I noticed that we came out a little flat there in the first," Bell said. "So I thought I'd give the guys a little buzz. It worked out. Unfortunately we got a bad bounce there right at the last shift of the game. I'm proud of the boys the way we battle back, though, but we've got to cut out the one or two shifts that we take off, and just seal down the two points."
The home crowd of loyal hockey fans left looking reasonably satisfied. The Solar Bears mustered up a sound offensive night -- many goals were scored by both teams, and the game, while not a winning one, was entertaining hockey.
But the game also highlighted some issues that rest at the heart of a continued affiliation with Toronto, and revealed the hard decisions that a first-year pro coach has to make to play in a league that values wins above all. The affiliation is up for negotiation at the end of this season.
Striking the Balance
The Orlando sports market, once relatively free from competition for fans (the Orlando Magic use the same arena as the Solar Bears, alternating nights), is now home to the Orlando City Soccer Team, and will soon also have a women’s soccer team, the Orlando Pride. It is a long-understood fact in hockey, and maybe all professional sports, that the best antidote to an emptying arena is to win games.
What does an ECHL team get for a losing season? There are 30 games remaining for the Solar Bears to right the ship. If they end up not making the playoffs, unlike their parent club, the Toronto Maple Leafs, there is no prize of a draft pick awaiting them in July. They get nothing but the summer off to rehash the season and plan anew. In order to be relevant to the Orlando hockey market, the team has to start winning now, drawing from the benefits of an affiliation with Toronto, and overcoming the drawbacks.
The benefits are obvious. The Solar Bears gain a nurturing mentor in the Leafs organization, which is more dedicated than most to every part of the minors system, and give hope to prospects in the ECHL that they can rise.
From the players’ perspective, this dedication to development is a never a bad thing. Players thrive on their aspirations of climbing the ranks of the minors and getting a shot at the NHL, and a development league is dedicated to keeping this hope alive -- Byron Froese is this year’s best example, as is Solar Bears’ alumnus Garret Sparks.
What is the correct balance of young prospects from Toronto to veteran players? One of the drawbacks of the affiliation is a constantly changing lineup, from the loss of high-scoring players as they rise to the next rung up, to shifting in goal to account for injuries. But an ever-revolving lineup of young prospects probably makes it hard to win hockey games.
Lately, the Solar Bears have let go of youth (Lindsay Sparks was recently traded to the Rapid City Rush for futures), and brought on veterans. One, Niklas Lindberg, 35, is already making a difference in the ten games he’s played for the Bears, with 2G/6A, and a calming presence behind the bench. Another, Rory Rawlyk, 32, just arrived, but the team hopes he will contribute a solid on-ice work ethic and mentoring to the younger members of the team.
Tonight I grossed out Zach Bell by describing his new teammate's puck to eye injury. I've never seen such a large guy shudder so much.— Acha (@tanyarezak) February 5, 2016
I asked Coach Anthony Noreen about this move toward signing veterans, and he was frank about their worth to the team, as players who can win games as well as help mentor the players in the Leafs system.
"I mean, the bottom line is that it's a move because we have to win," Noreen said. "You just take a look and I see what a guy like Eric Baier, or Denver Manderson, or Carl Nielsen, guys that have been around a little bit, how important they are to the younger guys, but the fact is they're in the minority in our room. Most of the guys are younger guys.
"We feel like any time we can bring in the right older guy who's got the right character, who wants to teach, who wants to help the younger guys get better to kind of balance that out in our room a little bit, it helps."
At this point in the season, the Solar Bears are still trying to do it all -- they're a hard-fighting club still dedicated to finding a way to win hockey games, while keeping the dream alive for Toronto prospects.