ORLANDO, FLA – One year ago, Ryan Cruthers was finishing his first season as the “face” of the newly minted Orlando Solar Bears hockey team. In the time since, he made one of the most important decisions of his life. That choice has allowed him to find other potential career paths while still being around and part of the game.
Saturday night, Cruthers returns to the Amway Center for the first since last March. It coincides with the arrival of the ECHL Eastern conference leading and defending Kelly Cup champion Reading Royals – and Cruthers’ present employer.
“It’s good to be back. It’s been one of the most enjoyable years that I’ve played,” Cruthers said. “I think everybody knew that I hadn’t played my last professional game in Orlando. I knew that I was going to continue to play hockey at some point. It was just a matter of when and with who.”
When Cruthers arrived in Orlando, he gained instant notoriety as the first announced signing of the “Out of Hibernation” Solar Bears franchise. He went on to be named captain and led the team in scoring, playing in all but one of the team’s 72 regular season games. Unfortunately for him and the rest of the Solar Bears, the team’s struggles on the road helped to keep Orlando out of the playoffs.
Cruthers said that when he committed to Orlando, he committed fully, bringing his wife and son with him in hopes of making the City Beautiful his final career stop and the beginning of the next chapter. Problem was, the team did not want to commit to anything longer than a year at a time.
“I wanted to stay down in Orlando all summer and have Orlando be the end of my career and be down there for a while and start something there,” he said. “Drake (Berehowsky, then head coach) wasn’t willing to sign anyone for the following year. It put me in a situation where I had to figure out how I was going to support my family and what I was going to do.”
Before the season was over, Cruthers was hired by the Body Zone in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania to run its youth hockey program and coach. Ryan was already a proven teacher and motivator, having successfully guided other youth teams to tournament championships in the Reading area so it was a perfect fit. Much of Cruthers’ early work was easily accomplished via phone and computer communications.
Being in Wyomissing meant that Cruthers was near Reading once again. He and Royals coach Larry Courville had an understanding that if Reading needed a fill-in player Courville could call and Cruthers would answer. That call came around Thanksgiving. He has been with the Royals ever since, balancing both jobs thanks to understanding employers.
“Both organizations have been great in terms of working out what needs to be done,” he said.
Cruthers quickly became a leader. He now leads the Royals in points, averaging just over a point per game. He said he never expected to play such a big role in the team’s success. His numbers put him in the top 15 in the league with the fewest number of games played in that group of players but the team’s accomplishments mean the most to him.
“It’s been a great year. I’m surrounded by great linemates and teammates,” Cruthers said. “I didn’t think I’d have this much success. It’s been great but most importantly we just won the conference and we have the first seed going forward and hopefully we can repeat as champions.”
Along the way, Cruthers came into another opportunity for a career choice. He was contacted by CBS Sports Network to do rinkside reporting for college hockey games. One of the games – Army vs. Air Force – was a natural for him as Cruthers had played two seasons at West Point. Cruthers’ knowledge of the game and general ease in any situation made him a hit with the network. This past Wednesday night he sat in as an analyst on the Royals game broadcast when the team gave him the night off.
“The experience was great,” he said. “It’s something I wanted to get into and I’ve been lucky enough to get a couple of opportunities.”
As he prepares to return to Orlando, Cruthers said he has fond memories of his year in town and is appreciative of how the organization and the fans embraced him. He added that he hopes that if he takes the ice (Reading is resting some players so it is not a guarantee), the reception will be kind.
“Orlando was amazing. It was a great experience for me and my family. It was a great place to play, great place to live,” he recalled. “The ownership group I would say is probably the best in the league. Everyone was amazing to me. I can’t thank them enough for the experience. The fans were great. I mean 9,000 fans (at games) on some nights. It was a great year. I’m looking forward to hopefully playing in front of that fan base. I would hope I would get a good reaction (from them).”
When asked, Cruthers said he was happy that the Solar Bears had qualified for the Kelly Cup playoffs, especially for former teammates Scott Tanski and C.J. Severyn who he went to battle with side-by-side last season. Of course, should the teams meet down the line in the post season, friendships will take a back seat.
“I think it’s great. I’ve never seen an ownership group work so hard for something,” Cruthers said. “I’m happy for them. I think it is going to be amazing come playoff time. The atmosphere in there (Amway Center) is going to be unlike any other building. It’s great for the city and it’s great for the owners. Obviously I wish them a lot of luck – except when they’re playing us.”
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