ORLANDO, FL – With the announcement made this morning, the ECHL will be adding their 28th franchise in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. The organizational framework of this new team is being driven in part by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and that will have implications for the Orlando Solar Bears.
Dean MacDonald, a St. John’s businessman, announced months ago that he was nailing down the plans to bring ECHL hockey to his city, and the Maple Leafs were identified as the team’s likely NHL affiliate. Last week, MacDonald and his partner Gregg Stanford came to a last-minute agreement to secure a lease with the Mile One Centre. So MacDonald and Stanford seem to have what they need to go before the ECHL Board of Governors to receive their seal of approval.
Should Toronto be the NHL affiliate for St. John’s, it would bring to an end a relationship that the Solar Bears and Maple Leafs have maintained since 2013.
Right off the bat, one can identify three teams that may come knocking on the Solar Bears’ door looking for an affiliation agreement: the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Florida Panthers, and the Nashville Predators.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a fan favorite choice of affiliates for the Solar Bears, and rightfully so. Tampa is merely a stone’s throw away from Orlando, and the Solar Bears already have many Lightning fans within their base. There are two problems: the Lightning have been happy working out arrangements with teams in the North Division such as the Kalamazoo Wings (their 2016-17 ECHL affiliate) and the Adirondack Thunder, and second, it isn’t clear how active the Lightning are in pursuing the Solar Bears organization. But the affiliation would make sense geographically and from a promotional standpoint. Tampa Bay could use a relationship with the Solar Bears to leverage more publicity and support for its team in the nearby Orlando market, and it would be easy for the team to keep abreast of its developing players.
The Panthers are another great choice of affiliates. Like Tampa, there some Panther fans in Orlando and vice versa. Not only this, but the Panthers currently have no ECHL affiliate. Their AHL affiliation with the Springfield Thunderbirds has been working out quite well, and, if they are looking for a third team to complete the development trio, the Solar Bears would seem to be a prime candidate. While a bit farther from Orlando than Tampa, the Panthers are close enough to make the Orlando market enticing. Moreover, Orlando’s proven front office and its track record in assisting the Maple Leafs with development should make the Solar Bears appealing to the Panthers management.
The Predators had an affiliation with the Norfolk Admirals at the start of the season, but it was abruptly ended due to complications between Norfolk and Nashville. Nashville would make a good fit for the team due in part to head coach Drake Berehowsky’s connection with the team. Berehowsky played with the Predators from 1998-2001. The Predators might be stinging from their premature divorce from the Admirals earlier this year, but that might also make them interested in a team like the Solar Bears which has shown an ability to maintain a stable, long-term affiliation. Berehowsky’s loyalty to and familiarity with the Predator organization would be added pluses.
In addition to the three prime candidates, two dark horses are lurking in the wings.
Detroit Red Wings
An affiliation with Detroit would bring the Solar Bears and Grand Rapids Griffins (the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate) under virtually the same ownership. Last May, the DeVos family, which owns the Orlando Magic, purchased the Solar Bears, and the Griffins are owned by Dan DeVos. The primary question is whether Detroit would be willing to give up their affiliation with the Toledo Walleye. The Toledo-Detroit affiliation has worked out for years now, and these ties have been assisted in part by location. Toledo is less than an hour away from Detroit, making this one of the closest affiliations in the league. Considering this, it seems unlikely that the Red Wings would be willing to give up their affiliation with Toledo for the Solar Bears. Nonetheless, the DeVos family ties make this possibility worth watching.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets are yet another rare NHL organization that has no ECHL affiliate. Much as the Springfield Thunderbirds have been for the Florida Panthers, the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters have been a staple for the Blue Jackets’ development. While Columbus seems like an odd choice for Orlando, if the Blue Jackets are seeking an ECHL affiliate to bolster its player development, it will be giving the Solar Bears a look.
In on-ice news, the Solar Bears completed a sweep of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits on Sunday afternoon due to a game-winning overtime goal by Kale Kerbashian, who continues to provide reliable offensive firepower for Orlando.
The team has now won eight of its last ten games and has a commanding seven-point lead over the Atlanta Gladiators for third place in the South Division. The Solar Bears return to home ice on Thursday at 7 p.m. when they will face their in-state nemesis, the Florida Everblades.