Orlando, FL – The Orlando Solar Bears opened the 2016-17 season with a “victorious loss”, though falling to the Florida Everblades 3-2, that game embraced the Orlando United theme to bring healing and unity to a city reeling from the violence of the Pulse Nightclub shooting that left 49 victims and the killer dead.
Ironically, the season ended with a catastrophic victory: Game 4 of the South Division Semifinal match-up against the Everblades featured a brilliant 3-0 performance that seemed to be pushing the Solar Bears to an unassailable 3-1 lead in the series. Goalie Ryan Massa had become the general for the team. He had stopped all 42 shots he faced and was keeping the squad focused and fired up.
More importantly, the Solar Bears were becoming heroes for Orlando. They were taking the lead in helping the city to recover from a tragically violent year and were giving it something to believe in. They had adopted “As One” as their playoff theme, echoing the Orlando United evening that started their season, and Orlando was starting to rally behind—can you believe it?—a minor league hockey team. The disappointing season of the NBA’s Orlando Magic contributed to the interest and enthusiasm. It was dawning on the Solar Bears that they were becoming something much bigger than themselves, much bigger than hockey.
But then, with 46 seconds left in Game 4, another act of violence struck, and it all unraveled. Desperate, embarrassed, and frustrated, the Everblades were looking for something … anything … to turn the tide in their favor, and they managed to find just the solution in a line brawl that downed Massa and sent the Solar Bears into a shell shock from which they never recovered.
In the record books, the South Division Semifinal series between the Solar Bears and Everblades was clinched when Florida bested Orlando 7-4 in Game 7 on Wednesday, April 26. But it was the line brawl at the close of Game 4 that was the turning point. After Game 4, Orlando was a completely different team. They had to rely on a largely untested Mitch Gillam in the net. Gillam came late in the season to Orlando fresh out of Cornell University, and, prior to his playoff action, he had played in only two professional games. Gillam showed notable skills and composure. But the team around him never regained its footing or its spark after the calamity of Massa’s injury.
Prior to Game 5, the Solar Bears had effectively stifled Florida’s offensive power, with Matt Berry scoring three out the Everblades’ nine goals over the first four games. But with Game 5, Orlando’s squad seemed sluggish, its passing became tentative, and it was continually back on its heels. The Everblades’ potent offense took charge, with Brendan O’Donnell scoring two goals and Michael Kirkpatrick potting a goal and an assist to lead Florida to a 5-1 win over Orlando.
Games 6 and 7 continued the downward spiral for Orlando. The Everblades put up four goals in the opening period, and in Game 7, Florida entered the third period with a 4-1 lead. In both games, third period was a score fest for both teams, with Orlando amassing six goals and Florida four goals in the final frames.
The ironies of Solar Bears’ implosion are almost too bitter, numerous, and deep to be believed. One of the most notable was the fact that the Bears’ season both started and ended with acts of violence. Not only this, but Orlando’s motto for the playoffs “As One” replayed the whole Orlando United theme.
During the fight, the Solar Bears’ fans and even the media were exuberant and euphoric. Massa himself saluted the Amway Center crowd after the scrum, and you could tell that many felt that a big fight was the perfect cap for the evening. The reality, however, is that everyone who was cheering was celebrating the fatal end of the season for Orlando.
One should note that there is no official word about the nature and extent of Massa’s injuries. The organization has always been professional and responsible in keeping medical details sealed from the public. But one can note the following: Massa has shown a susceptibility to concussions, and the video shows him on the bottom of the scrum pile with Florida’s Dalton Smith delivering head blows and then Alex Nedeljkovic joining in for more shots after he had removed his gloves, skated down the ice, and worked his way down to Massa.
If Massa’s season was ended because of blows to his head (and remember, there is no official word about this matter from the management), then, from what I can see in the video, Smith and Nedeljkovic are the two who are most responsible for that outcome. Nedeljkovic was a miserable 0-3 in his starts during the series, but ironically, he may be one of the players most responsible for helping Florida to clinch it. Two Florida players did receive suspensions (Mitchell Heard for instigating and Jake Baker), but the players directly confronting Massa did not.
The line brawl itself could not have been more devastating had it been deliberately planned. If you wanted to take down the opposition’s goalie who had become a wall and who was energizing his squad, how would you do it? Try this out: Instigate a fight somewhere else on the ice to distract the officials. Then, while the referees are diverted, send down another player to lure the goalie out of his crease and get him down on the ice. Be sure to get other players to join in a big tussle to help cover what you do to the goalie. It helps that this is hockey, where the crowd will actually be gleeful for the brawl. For a good final measure, we’ll have our goalie launch one more surprise attack by skating down the ice and joining in on pummeling their goalie, who will hopefully be in a compromising position.
One notable fact is how there has been very little talk of fighting and concussions in the wake of the scrum. Though it is uncertain as to why Massa was outed for the remainder of the season, it is quite possible that it was due to a concussion. If this does turn out to be the case, the media and the ECHL should look at themselves and their practices. This game was picked up by ESPN and others, not to raise questions, but for its entertainment value. That coverage is ultimately not good for minor league hockey, the ECHL, or the AHL affiliations. The media buzz has made it so easy to overlook or make light of the devastating underside of this type of brawl.
While the playoffs did have an abrupt end for the Solar Bears, the season as a whole was an overwhelming success for the club. Not only did they make it back to the playoffs, but they took a playoff series lead for the first time in franchise history, and they went deeper into the opening round than ever before. Their attendance during the playoffs was notable—second in the league with an average crowd of over 6300. Game 4 attendance was 8243, and the team no doubt picked up many new fans and season ticket holders in the final week. The Amway Center hockey experience rocked during the year.
Drake Berehowsky’s arrival as head coach in the middle of the season helped to turn the tables for Orlando, especially on home ice. Joe Haleski was stellar as the organization’s CEO after the departure of Jason Siegel. The Toronto affiliation has improved greatly as well. The future looks bright for this franchise heading into the next season. In upcoming articles, we will cover what Orlando needs to do next year to not only get into the playoffs, but to get past the first round.