ORLANDO, FL – The upcoming season will be an exciting one for the Orlando Solar Bears. With the new rival in Jacksonville, and plenty of meetings against old rivals such as Florida, South Carolina, and Greenville, the 2017-18 season is jam packed with games to look forward to. However, there are five games that will stand out above the rest. Here’s the list of the top five games to watch this upcoming Solar Bears’ season.
#5: Solar Bears @ Jacksonville Icemen on October 14
The Solar Bears’ season will kick off on the road this season, with their first game being played against their newest state rival, the Jacksonville Icemen. As the historic, inaugural game for Jacksonville, this matchup will give the two teams an early opportunity to experience each others’ playing styles, and the Solar Bears will have the honor of introducing the Icemen to the state of Florida. This will be the first of nine games played against the newly relocated Icemen.
On a side note, exactly five years prior, in the 2012-13 season, the Solar Bears’ inaugural game was played at home against the Florida Everblades. The game ended up going to a shootout which Orlando won in front of a sellout crowd.
Even more intriguing is the fact that Jacksonville Icemen President Bob Ohrablo was one of the three owners who brought the Solar Bears out of hibernation in 2012-13. He left the club in 2014. It will be interesting seeing two franchises that owe their births to Ohrablo going head-to-head. You can already sense that the Solar Bears-Icemen rivalry will be strong. Both sides have taken to Facebook and have kindly greeted each other.
Given that Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena is only a couple hours from Orlando’s Amway Center, you can expect the house to be packed with fans from both clubs for this matchup.
#4 Solar Bears vs. Wheeling Nailers on February 9
The Solar Bears vs. Nailers matchup is similar to the Solar Bears vs. Fort Wayne Komets matchup (see below), with one difference—instead of being crushed, the Solar Bears are the ones doing the crushing. The Solar Bears have not managed to lose to Wheeling in their five-year history. This upcoming season, you can expect Wheeling to be gunning for a return to the playoffs, and they will have a different attitude on the ice. Orlando will need to be on their game if they want to remain undefeated against the Nail City’s hockey club. As an added bonus, the matchup will bring Wheeling’s Radio Broadcaster DJ Abisalih to the Amway Center to call the game for his club. Abisalih carries a quick wit and a unique delivery style, plus he is deeply knowledgeable about hockey. It’s always worth taking a few minutes to listen in to his broadcast.
#3: Solar Bears @ Allen Americans on October 21
The Solar Bears will once again make a trip out to the wild west this year and will face off against one of the premier clubs—the Allen Americans. The Americans have been one of the toughest teams in the ECHL, winning two Kelly Cup Championships back-to-back, and before that, being the CHL’s champions. Last year, they were forced out of the playoffs by the Colorado Eagles, and you should expect the Americans to be hungry to reclaim the Kelly Cup title in 2018.
One thing that makes the Americans (and many other Mountain Division teams) tough is their physical style of play and their desire to intimidate. Orlando last season did a terrific job at keeping the Americans at bay, with the team coming close to sweeping Allen in the three games they played against them at the Amway Center.
On a side note, goalie Riley Gill has returned for the Americans which will give the team a solid anchor, but expect to see a different look elsewhere. Future ECHL Hall of Famer Chad Costello has moved to Europe along with Josh Brittain and Spencer Asuchak. But Steve Martinson is the most resourceful head coach in the league, and you know he will find a way to shore up those holes.
The game against Allen will be a good early litmus test for the Solar Bears and will give head coach Drake Berehowsky a sense of how his club matches up against the best in the league.
#2 Solar Bears @ Fort Wayne Komets on November 10
In their five seasons of being an ECHL franchise, the Solar Bears have faced many challenges, and one of the most perplexing has been that of playing the Fort Wayne Komets. The Komets have been a stickler for the Solar Bears, as Orlando has yet to defeat the Komets once. The Solar Bears are hopeful that this year will be different from the previous, as the Solar Bears and Komets meet once again in Fort Wayne.
The Komets are perpetually in the playoff hunt, finishing 2016-17 as one of the top teams in the Central Division, ranking second behind the Toledo Walleye—not bad when you consider that the Walleye not only took the division last year, but won Brabham Cup as the ECHL regular season champions.
Yes, it’s true that Fort Wayne is tough. But, Orlando proved repeatedly last year that they can take on and defeat the most physical of opponents—Florida, South Carolina, Colorado, and Allen among them. The tilt against Fort Wayne will give Berehowsky and his squad another crucial test of their mettle.
#1 Solar Bears vs. Florida Everblades on November 3
Ah, the classic Solar Bears-Everblades rivalry. This game takes the number one seat for several reasons. For one, the bitterness of last year’s playoff exit is still rooted in the minds of the Solar Bears, and will likely result in an intense, heated, physical game between these two teams. Orlando’s season essentially ended during the fourth game of South Division semi-finals, when Florida instigated a line brawl that left goalie Ryan Massa injured. Without Massa to tend the net, Orlando lost its general on the ice and never recovered.
With Chris Crane, a former Allen American, returning to the Solar Bears, and the possibility of Massa resuming duties between the pipes, the team will be given the opportunity to revisit that memory and to exorcise the Everblades demon.
The Solar Bears have shown time and time again that they can beat Florida. If Orlando can get a solid lead from the get-go and match the intimidation factor of Florida, they can set the tone for the rest of the year.
Since Orlando came out of hibernation in 2012, the Everblades have bullied, pummeled, and beaten the Solar Bears. Berehowsky will be looking to turn the tide in 2017-18 and to do so, he will need to show Florida from the start that his team isn’t going to be pushed around anymore. Expect the rivalry between the Solar Bears and Everblades to reach the stratosphere this year, and expect both teams to approach the first meeting on Nov. 3 like they are heading to the O.K. Corral.
Finally, I would like to end this article with a thank you to all my colleagues who voted me The Sin Bin Writer of the Year, and I would also like to thank all of my general readers who have supported and encouraged me throughout the past season.
This coming season, I will do my best to deliver articles that stand out and provide unique coverage of the Orlando Solar Bears.