MAITLAND, FLA – When Drake Berehowsky took the job as the head coach of the ECHL expansion Orlando Solar Bears, he knew that his first year as the man charged with building the franchise would be unlike any other. Little did he know that his job would be this interesting.
Friday night, Berehowsky will take his newly constructed roster to Estero to face the defending Kelly Cup champion Florida Everblades. It will be the first of four consecutive regular season games against their in-state rivals after facing off against them twice in the preseason. The last of the set will be the Solar Bears home opener on October 20, at the Amway Center.
Berehowsky and assistant coach Matt McIlvane have been very busy trying to put the team together. Because of the NHL lockout and subsequent top-to-bottom shifting of talent, Friday’s game will be the first time that the Solar Bears’ will be playing in game action.
“It’s tough right now. With the lockout happening, we’ve got so many players coming down, so much movement. In the last couple of days especially, there’s been a ton of movement,” Berehowsky said. “I think after this weekend, things will settle down more.”
The Solar Bears are a perfect example of how quickly the roster moves are coming. Just hours before the opening night roster deadline, the team signed forwards Rob Mignardi and Scott Tanski. Mignardi came from Orlando’s AHL affiliate in Houston, via the Ontario Reign, who held his ECHL rights. His resume also includes AHL time with the Manchester Monarchs.
Tanski, a second year pro, played for the AHL’s Connecticut Whale a year ago. The Solar Bears also traded with Cincinnati for ECHL All-Rookie forward Mathew Sisca.
One day earlier, Berehowsky shored up his goaltending corps by signing
Curry will join Brooks Ostergard on the opening night roster. Ostergard, a free agent signing, has been with the Solar Bears since the start of training camp and played in both preseason games against the Everblades. Houston also intends to send netminder Mike Brodeur to Orlando, but an injury is holding that move up at the moment.
Once Brodeur is here, Berehowsky expects a healthy competition that will pay long term dividends but he has no intention to force Brodeur back until he is ready.
“It’s going to be his (Brodeur) call. I’ll never push someone back from an injury,” Berehowsky said. “I’d love to have three great goalies to choose from but it’s going to be up to the medical staff, the doctors and himself to figure out when he’ll be ready to play and we’ll proceed from there.”
Up front, the acknowledged leaders on the team are veterans Ryan Cruthers and Kevin Baker. Cruthers, the leading scorer in Reading Royals history, and Baker, the ECHL 2008-2009 Most Valuable Player, have been through the ECHL wars and know how to win.
Ramping up the skill level are six players from Houston. Forwards Ryan Ginand, Josh Caron and Nick Petersen bring a varying array of skills to the table. Add to that defensemen Sean Lorenz, Corbin Baldwin and Kyle Medvec will raise the level of play greatly. CJ Severyn, Alexandre Imbeault, Brett Lyon and Ian Watters will be expected to contribute to the overall production.
“We’ve got a great leadership group. I think everybody leads out on the ice but we’ve got guys like Ryan Cruthers and Kevin Baker. They’re tremendous leaders,” Berehowsky said. “Petersen came in and he’s skating hard, working hard for me. All the guys who came down from Houston have been working hard. They’ve I think bought into what we’re trying to accomplish here, the culture that we’re trying to establish. They’ve done a great job coming in.”
Berehowsky was especially complimentary about how Cruthers, a former Hobey Baker Award nominee, has become a go-to player when it comes to taking the lead.
“You look at Ryan out there on the ice all the time. He’s trying to lead all the drills, lead by example out on the ice. He does things the right way,” Berehowsky said.
Defensively, Derick Martin, Ryan Blair, Simon Danis-Pepin and Michael Wilson are the main anchors along the blue line. Berehowsky said he was impressed with how Wilson has stepped up his game.
Berehowsky could hardly contain his pride in his squad and how they have come through a very rugged training camp.
“I’m proud of these guys. They’ve been pushed hard. I’ve pushed them really hard this training camp, even the guys coming in (during) the last three days,” he said. “It’s been tough. We’ve only had three lines. They’ve been pushed hard and they’ve come through and answered the bell.”
Berehowsky and McIlvane have spent a great deal of time using video to get the players acclimated to the systems that they want the Solar Bears to play along with systems that Minnesota and Houston use. The one thing they can’t draw up on a dry erase board is chemistry. Berehowsky said that if the fans could see the team beyond the ice, they would be pleasantly surprised with how the players are coming together.
“We have an unbelievable change room. They have lunch in there every day,” he said. “I walked in there yesterday and was shocked to see everybody sitting around talking. It seems like they are already a pretty close group, blended and meshed together. They all seem to be having fun with each other and as long as they can work together, they’ll have lots of fun and win some hockey games.”
Berehowsky knows that all of his work could be altered greatly if the NHL reaches a new collective bargaining agreement with the players association. He said that he along with other ECHL coaches are working closely with their AHL affiliates to make sure to avoid what could be a disaster if massive call-ups happen.
“If you manage your team well, you won’t have a problem. You’ll have some extra guys around so if you get some call-ups you won’t be left with a bare minimum roster. It’s tough when you have 15 guys coming down and then ten of them are going to be called up. You’ve got to go find ten more guys,” he said.
“We’ve worked with Jim Mill (Houston general manager) and he’s been great to us. He’s going to help us the whole way. He’s not going to leave us high and dry. If the lockout ends and I lose a couple of guys, I’ve got a couple of guys in mind and we have a couple extra guys right now on our roster. They’ll be able to fill in and we’ll go from there. We’ll except anything that is thrown at us and build on it and get better from it.”
Above all else, Berehowsky said that he expects his Solar Bears to come out hungry for victories when the games start counting on Friday, knowing that how the team starts the season will set a tone for the rest of the year.
“Points at the start of the year are so important,” he said. “The guys are motivated. They’re working hard on the ice so hopefully it will carry over.”
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