ORLANDO, FLA. — While the Orlando Solar Bears are eagerly awaiting the start of the season in October, there have been plenty of developments to keep the avid fans entertained and intrigued. At the top of the list is the question of who the Solar Bears’ new affiliate will be.
Thursday morning, the Newfoundland Growlers, the newest addition to the ECHL, confirmed their affiliation with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and AHL’s Toronto Marlies. Though not a surprise, the announcement officially brings an end the five-year relationship the Solar Bears have had with Toronto. Coincidentally, on that same day, the Toronto Marlies won their first Calder Cup championship in franchise history, becoming the first Toronto team to win a hockey championship since 1967.
The Solar Bears expressed their gratitude towards the Toronto family for the past five years of success.
In an update posted on the Orlando Solar Bears website, president Chris Heller stated, “We want to thank the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies organizations for having us serve as their ECHL affiliate since the 2013-14 season. Having said that, we are excited as we begin a new chapter in Orlando Solar Bears hockey with the pending announcement of our new NHL and AHL affiliates for the upcoming season.”
Looking at things from the outside, the Orlando-Toronto affiliation was valuable to both teams. It was stable, it was marked by regular communication, and it worked well in both directions. One might look at this year’s Calder Cup Championship and note that Garret Sparks (its starting netminder) and Mason Marchment are both former Solar Bears who proved themselves at the next level. Both players have a solid shot at making it to the NHL.
With Toronto out of the picture for next year, the Solar Bears are keeping their cards close to the vest. As reported earlier, two front-runners would be the Nashville Predators and the Florida Panthers — the Panthers because of proximity and Predators because of Solar Bears head coach Drake Berehowsky who played for the team from 1998-2001.
Some interesting news came from the Tampa Bay Lightning’s preseason schedule, as they will be playing a game in Orlando at the Amway Center against none other than the Florida Panthers on Sept. 27. Of course, this is all speculation at this point, and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions. But the announcement of the Panthers vs. Lightning game is intriguing. If the Solar Bears and Panthers have something in the works, that event would be an ideal opportunity for an affiliation celebration party. And if fans want even more intrigue, they might note that the Vegas Golden Knights are looking for a new affiliate after the move of the Quad City Mallards from the ECHL to the SPHL.
In other news, the Solar Bears have announced that the departure of associate coach John Snowden, which came as a surprise to many fans. Snowden had been with the team since 2015, and he provided key help both behind the bench and in recruitment. One lasting memory Snowden leaves behind is the five-game stint in 2017 when he briefly took over the helm after Berehowsky experienced a medical emergency.
When announcing its protected list on June 4, there were some intriguing names in the mix. Those included Justin Buzzeo, who departed for Europe at the end of the 2016-17 season, and Ryan Massa, whom many assumed had retired at the end of that season due to an injury sustained in game 5 of the Kelly Cup playoffs against the Florida Everblades.
Attention now turns to qualifying offers, which are due on June 30. On June 13, the Solar Bears completed three future considerations trades, acquiring forwards Mark Bennett and Stefan Fournier (from the Reading Royals and the Brampton Beast respectively) and defenseman Rob Mann from the Utah Grizzlies. All three of those players appeared on the Solar Bears’ end-of-season roster list. The end-of-season roster also included seasoned energizers like Hunter Fejes, Nolan Valleau, Kyle Rankin, Joe Perry, and Adam Phillips. Other notables in the running for re-signings are veterans Sean Zimmerman, Mike Monfredo, Chris Crane, and Kale Kerbashian.
While constant change is inevitable in minor league hockey, the Orlando Solar Bears are maintaining an even keel. The club’s owners, RDV Sports, Inc., have kept the team on solid footing. Berehowsky is steady at the helm. And the team’s management is seasoned and focused. The new affiliation will bring plenty of fresh faces to the club, but, given the record with Toronto, the sense heading into July is not one of anxiety but of anticipation and optimism. 2018-19 is shaping up to be the start of an exciting new chapter in Solar Bears history.