"Did I hear that the play-by-play announcer drove the equipment van? Does he have a license for that?"
"We try not to think too hard about things like that..."
In a hard-working league like the ECHL, everyone wears a lot of different hats. The above conversation took place when Orlando's 96.9 The Game radio host learned that Jesse Liebman, the Solar Bears play-by-play guy (among other duties), might have been the relief equipment driver for the Solar Bears' road trip.
If true, Liebman did a fine job -- not only did he possibly convey and help hang the equipment in each arena before calling the games (in South Carolina, Greenville, Evansville, and Cincinnati), but the Solar Bears rewarded him by playing some fantastic hockey, taking home at least a point in every game to garner 8 out of a possible 10.
Coach Anthony Noreen showed up on the radio to reflect upon these five games, his philosophy for the long, early-season road trip, and a record that has the Solar Bears sitting at second place in the South Division.
One of the interesting parts of the ECHL is the frequency with which geographically close teams play each other. So far this season, the team that Orlando has faced the most are the South Carolina Stingrays, opening the road trip by meeting them twice in their arena for the fourth and fifth times in two weeks.
Noreen admitted that when teams meet a lot, enmity grows, and things get chippier and chippier. "Their team went to the finals last year, and almost all of them returned -- they're older, more experienced. At the end of the day we have to score ugly goals, get to the net front, make plays."
That the team did, splitting the two games in a shootout loss and a shootout win. The second period of the winning game was a small pandemonium, with an inevitable fighting major handed to Orlando's Brad Richard, who took exception to a play that left F Erik Bradford injured from a Stingray puck to the face.
Orlando is not quite as experienced as the Stingrays yet, with only a handful of Bears returning from last season while others (like Garret Sparks) have graduated to rise in the system. Not only that, but Orlando was short a defenceman when the Toronto Marlies asked that Orlando D Zach Bell join them in St. John's (Newfoundland) for a road trip.
Noreen didn't mind the fluctuating personnel, though. "When I get a call and it's Dubas and he says, 'We need Zach Bell up in St. John's,' that's our job, that's us doing our job to get them ready. Hopefully guys go up and represent us well."
The last game of the trip ended in a five-round shootout loss to the Cincinnati Cyclones, during which defenseman Eric Baier scored twice, including a short-handed goal that raised the Solar Bears total (6 shorties so far this season) to lead the league.
"Our special teams were key," Noreen admitted, noting that special teams helped steal points from two tough games. But that wasn't the best part of the road trip. "It was ten days together with just us, there was lots of video, lots of teaching."
Despite the weariness, the injuries, the change in players, Noreen maintained that in the early part of the season, players are able to grow the most. "You see guys who need more conditioning when you're on road trips. Compared to the guys who have a little more pro experience, the guys who played junior hockey last season are still getting used to it. We want to get to a point where our whole team is at their best."
It's interesting to note that Noreen, too, was in junior hockey last season, and I have to wonder how he is preparing himself for the long grind.
Did Noreen learn a lot about his team? He spent much of the trip sitting back and observing. "A lot of people have asked us why we haven't named a captain yet," he said, "I wanted us to get to a point where we've been up and down a bit, on a trip where guys are tired, sick, hurt, to see who would still be leaders." The radio host didn't press to ask who that stand-out leader might be, so (heads up, Noreen) PPP will ask that question after the game tonight.
Goaltender Rob Madore faced his old team in Cincinnati, the team that he took through playoffs and earned league MVP status with in 2014. Madore also had a hard-working yet successful trip, starting four games and replacing backup Ryan Massa in relief in the middle of the trip. He ended the trip improving to a solid .921 SV%.
"Madore had a great trip," Noreen agreed. "I've been listening to the news that scoring is at a premium. I saw the best quote about this the other day from Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. AV said, 'I think our goal scorers need to work harder at scoring goals.'
"If you look down on the ice right now, who do you see? The goalies. Goalies are the first guys out on the ice, and the last guys off it. They have their own coach. They work at their craft, and are the hardest working guys on every team. Why shouldn't the forwards work just as hard?"
I leave you with another question. Why did the Marlies call up Bell (1 A in 10 GP, 33 PIM) rather than shorthanded-goal master Baier (4 G, 12 A in 14 GP, with 0 PIM), also on a two-way contract? Why is that, Kyle Dubas?
These questions and more will probably remain unanswered after tonight's game.