MAILTAND, FLA – At one point or another, most children entertain the idea of becoming a professional athlete. For kids in Canada and a growing number of children in the U.S., the sport of choice is ice hockey. Thing is that usually once a kid tries and takes a liking to the game, the feeling never dies.
On August 28th, more than 30 hockey players of all ages and walks of life had the chance to feed their Walter Mitty-ish dreams of becoming a pro hockey player as the Orlando Solar Bears held an open tryout. Coach Drake Berehowsky put the players through drills and then a full out scrimmage at the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den, all the time looking to see if any of the players had the talent to be invited to the ECHL expansion team’s main training camp on October 1st.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of talented players who came to (the) tryout,” Berehowsky said. “My expectations were at a minimum but the desire and the level at which the players were able to compete impressed me.”
“Whether it is a two-day or a one-day tryout, the best players will have a chance to stand out and there were a few players that we noticed. The length of this tryout still gave us ample time to challenge the players,” he said. “After the players come out and skate, you can see them begin to realize that they have some work to do in order to be ready for the start of training camp. By holding tryouts earlier, it gives any players who are invited to camp a chance to prepare a little longer and work on the things they need to work on.”
The stories of the players who took the ice were as numerous and varied as the number of skaters and goalies. There was the one who works for AAA. Another was a social worker from the Tampa area. A third was a member of the inline hockey team at the University of Central Florida. There were players who had junior hockey experience and those who skated in men’s leagues at RDV and other rinks around the state and elsewhere.
Greg Roberts of Winter Park, Florida spent much of his youth playing in leagues at RDV. When it came time for college, he played at Florida Tech in nearby Melbourne. Even though he is a lifelong resident of the Sunshine State, Roberts said it was a dream of his to play professionally.
“My dream since I was a kid was always to play professional hockey. Growing up down here obviously it wasn’t a very realistic dream,” he said. “Now I have the chance to try to go for it so I figured why not.”
When the first incarnation of the Solar Bears played in the IHL, Roberts, 28, had season tickets so it was only natural that he wanted an opportunity to make the roster this time around.
“I’ve always been a fan of the Solar Bears. I’ve never had the chance to try out for a team like this,” Roberts said. “I just wanted basically to get a judge of where I am compared to the rest of the guys.”
Although the list of hometowns on the camp roster held mostly Florida names, there were a number of players who were born elsewhere.
Ryan Abrahams was born in Pickering, Ontario east of Toronto. He played hockey at home until he got to junior hockey age and then quit because of a knee injury. He later moved to Florida to go into financial services and was doing that until two years ago when he chose to give hockey another try.
Like Roberts, Abrahams remembered the success of the original Solar Bears and jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the next generation of players in the teal and purple.
“I remember when the Solar Bears were in the IHL. They had a pretty good team – I think they won the Turner Cup some years back,” he said. “When I knew I wanted to get back into pro hockey, I was thinking whether it was going to be (in) Europe or whether I was going to play in (the) Czech (Republic) or try to play somewhere here. I knew the Orlando organization had something good so I wanted to come here and give it a shot.”
Maybe the longest trip belonged to Radoslav Konecny. Born in Bucovice in the Czech Republic, Konecny came to America eight years ago and began a career in modeling. Following the death of his grandfather, Konecny decided to give hockey another shot.
“I’ve been playing hockey since I was five and I never really accomplished my goals with professional hockey,” Konecny said. “I want to take it to the next level. I’m trying out for different teams and we’ll see how I do.”
For others, it was an chance to prove people wrong. 23-year old Tyler Lewis’ playing days started in Lafayette, Louisiana before coming to the Orlando area to live and work. He’s been trying to latch on with minor league teams but each time he was told no because of one thing – size.
“I got invited to the Toledo Walleye (ECHL) training camp. I was at the AHL combine but everyone told me I was too small. I got to play with the Louisiana IceGators and the Mississippi Surge (SPHL) for a bit but they said I was too small as well,” Lewis said. “Hopefully this time I’ll break the spell.”
Berehowsky worked with the goalies first before splitting everyone up into two groups for 45 minutes of drills. Following lunch, a 60-minute running time scrimmage broken into two halves ensued. A number of fans, family and media showed up to watch and support the players during the day.
One member of the media took his coverage to another level. WKMG-TV sports director David Pingalore laced up the skates and took part in the first practice session, running through the drills while a videographer recorded his every move. The video was used as part of a two-night story arc on the CBS affiliate’s 11 p.m. news. (Video from both nights newscasts can be found on the Solar Bears Facebook page.)
The last time Pingalore played hockey, he was 14 years old and living in Connecticut. He said that his time on the ice gave him a new perspective on the game and a better appreciation for what the players and coaches go through.
“Today was really interesting. You realize how difficult the sport is and how out of shape that I actually am. These guys that are out here trying to make this hockey team, they put a lot of effort in,” Pingalore said. “You definitely get a good sense of when you’re allowed to participate and get a feel for what these guys go through and you get a lot more respect for it. It helps you learn the game a little bit more and really understand how much work goes into it. It looks a lot easier than it is for sure.”
Individual talents that were noticeable during the practice drills started to shine during the scrimmage as everyone knew it was their last chance to impress Berehowsky and the Solar Bears ownership who were on-hand to observe. Roberts showed his toughness when he was sent head first into the board early on but got up and finished the rest of the game.
When the final buzzer went off, Berehowsky and the Solar Bears had plenty to think about and look at over the coming day. Berehowsky hinted that there could be several players invited to come back in October to try to earn a spot on the roster.
Berehowsky knows that the players from the tryout will have an uphill battle but he is more than willing to give them that shot.
“The reason for having a training camp is to see how players stack up against each other. Any players who earn an invite to camp will have made one jump, but they will need to make another jump if they hope to make it to the next level, which is being on the roster for the first game of the season,” he said. “Every player comes into camp with a clean slate and an equal opportunity.”
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