ORLANDO, FL – A failed playoff push. A surprising departure of the team CEO. A disappointing home record (15-18-1-2) at the Amway Center. Such were the major disappointments the Orlando Solar Bears endured over the course of last season.
Heading into the off-season, the Solar Bears organization knew that there would be no hibernating.
To show that the team has been serious about setting a new course, it called a town hall meeting to discuss its battle plans with its season ticket holders. The event occurred at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in downtown Orlando on August 24. The event itself was a first for the Solar Bears and is an indication to the fanbase the upcoming season would not be a “business-as-usual” affair.
While not declaring a complete overhaul, Chairman and CEO Joe Haleski and Coach Anthony Noreen demonstrated that they were making significant changes to get the team moving toward the Kelly Cup.
Haleski and Noreen were enthusiastic, genuine, and candid in their responses to audience questions. “I was not happy with the results of last year on or off the ice,” said Haleski, and he has set a return to the playoffs as a critical goal for the upcoming season.
For his part, Noreen has established defense and physical play as priorities for his second year as head coach of the Solar Bears. He has already signed his ECHL-maximum allotment of four veteran players–of those, three are defense men, three of which are new to the team.
“First and foremost, we were looking for quality players,” said Noreen about the signings of the veterans. “Our biggest weakness last year was our defense.”
He is visibly excited about the central role he has been able to play in building this year’s team and the fact that he isn’t having to play catchup. “When (Assistant Coach John Snowden and I) came on last year, most of those guys [the veteran players] were gone,” he said. “This year, we will start with an older team.”
The sole returning veteran is Eric Baier who will start the season with 176 career games and 81 points (28g-53a) under his belt. The choice of Baier was a “no-brainer” according to Noreen, who pointed to Baier’s key leadership on and off the ice.
Adding heft and expertise to the defensive arsenal is Taylor Doherty, a 6’ 7” blueliner who has over 300 games and nearly 400 penalty minutes to his credit.
Completing the veteran blue liner trifecta is Trevor Ludwig who hails from a family steeped in hockey and who has been part of several championship trophy wins, including the Kelly Cup with the 2014-15 Allen Americans,the Brabham Cup with the Missouri Mavericks last season, and back-to-back CHL Ray Miron President’s Cups with the Allen Americans in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
According to Noreen, Ludwig has said, “I want to win another championship before I retire.”
Goalie Ryan Massa was another early signing for the Solar Bears. In his rookie season last year, Massa racked up two shutouts and a .915 save percentage in 37 games. The Toronto Maple Leafs (the Bears’ NHL affiliate) already has a flush of five goalies, so Orlando isn’t expected to have another signing in that department.
Out of the four veterans, the one who will provide seasoned leadership on offense will be Paul Crowder, who played with the Fort Wayne Komets last season. Crowder has been playing pro hockey since 2009. According to Noreen, Rob Madore (goaltender for the Solar Bears last season) said, “He (Crowder) was the best leader I’ve ever played with.”
There were many intriguing ideas mentioned at the town hall meeting. Some of those floated include:
- the installation of an actual horn at Amway Center,
- an inflatable street hockey rink,
- print programs for weekend game sets,
- locker room tours and the RDV and Amway Center for season ticket holders
- earlier start times on Sundays, as well as a potential school day game
Noreen and Haleski were energetic and assured, and the fans at the event were excited by their confidence.
Noreen’s philosophy was summed up when he said, “I want to play physical hockey. We will play physical hockey.” The upcoming season promises to bring a new attitude and look to the Orlando Solar Bears.
The Solar Bears open their season with a four-game home-stand beginning October 22 against their cross-state rivals, the Florida Everblades.
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