Jesse Liebman is the director of communications and broadcasting for the Orlando Solar Bears and enters his fifth season behind the microphone as the team’s play-by-play voice for the 2019-20 season. Shoot him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments or blog topic suggestions.
It was an enjoyable experience to be at our Season Ticket Member event at Harry Buffalo last week as we announced that Mike Monfredo, Alexander Kuqali and Trevor Olson would be returning to Orlando for the 2019-20 season. Each player was individually revealed via a FaceTime projection, much to the delight of those in attendance. Those guys have no shortage of personality – the highlight probably had to be Kuqali acknowledging his distinction as the “Best Smile in the ECHL” by pulling out his two front teeth, drawing laughter and applause.
As it happens, Kuqali is in town this week serving as a guest instructor at the Solar Bears youth hockey camp at the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den.
We had a chance to catch up with him this week after he helped oversee the morning and afternoon sessions, and see how he’s kept busy during the offseason and what he’s looking forward to most this summer.
Jesse Liebman: What have you been up to this summer?
Alexander Kuqali: I am working for my father, who has his own general construction company based out of Syracuse, New York, but we do a lot of travel throughout the northeast, particularly in New York, Boston, Maine. When I’m not helping him out, I’m with my mother in Pennsylvania, where my older brother is currently helping train young hockey players on and off the ice. I’m helping re-do the house with tons of different interior and exterior projects. Other than that, I’ve been trying to give the body some rest, and I’ve had a few weddings that I’ve attended, so I’ve had a lot of fun seeing some old friends, and there’s a few more scheduled before I return to Orlando.
JL: Let’s talk about the past season. You were acquired in a trade from Fort Wayne midway through the year – what memories stick out the most to you?
AK: My first road trip when we played Greenville stood out. You always remember your first game with a new team, just because it’s all brand new, and your teammates don’t necessarily know what to expect from you. I ended up getting an assist and we won the game, so that was a good start for my résumé with the Bears. After that, we were in the thicker part of the season, so there were a ton of games congested together and it really flew by. What I do remember was that final stretch when there was so much movement with the standings, and I was happy that we locked up second place and waiting to see who we would play, and we thought we’ be playing Jacksonville, and then it ended up being South Carolina. That series against the Stingrays was also a great memory, since that was the first playoff series I had a chance to win.
JL: With any season there are some bumps and bruises along the way. You missed some time in March when you blocked a shot during Orlando’s trip up to Newfoundland. But once you came back by early April, that’s when things really took off for you – you scored your first two goals with the Solar Bears during the final week of the regular season, and then enjoyed a strong playoff run. How were you able to elevate your play down the stretch?
AK: I would start off by saying that you never want to be injured, because you appreciate the groove that you get into once you get past preseason. It’s a lot more effort to rehab and do everything on top of your normal routine when you’re dealing with an injury. In other ways, it was helpful on other parts of my body. I think the tight race we had was such a huge motivator – and we definitely wanted home ice in the playoffs. In that crunch time, you really need to be on your game and be prepared for the worst. When you do that, you can prepare for whatever the game throws at you. I came back and didn’t skip a beat and we were able to secure home ice for the playoffs, and I felt that I was able to contribute on the stat sheet more than I typically would.
JL: Once the Solar Bears’ season came to a close, you took some time to decompress and reflect on the season. What did you do to take your mind off things?
AK: I like to explore. I’m a big traveler and getting away from the gym and the rink is important for me in the summer because we’re there so often during the season. I tried to explore Orlando a bit and walk around, and get outside and enjoy the fresh air. I like the restaurants in Winter Park and while my mom was visiting late in the season, we checked out some of the restaurants downtown as well, and I really enjoyed that.
JL: Once you decided you still had that fire and yearning to play another year, what convinced you to stick around for another season with the Solar Bears? How much convincing did you need from head coach Drake Berehowsky?
AK: I really enjoyed my time from January on, because the organization and all of its staff take great care of us, not just on the ice but away from the rink as well. I felt really cared about on all fronts, and everyone here wants the best for us as players and people. Everyone here is trying to help you be better. I have a really good relationship with Drake, so it made it easy when I decided I wanted to continue playing, and there was no question I wanted to come back to Orlando.
JL: What do you feel has made your relationship with Coach Berehowsky work?
AK: With Drake, his door’s always open and I know that he will always be very direct with me in his expectations for us. There’s no second-guessing about what he might be thinking. And he’s lived this life, but he also knows how to coach the current generation of hockey players. Communication goes both ways, and I feel comfortable coming to him with any question I might have.
JL: Let’s shift gears to this week. You’ve been on the ice here at RDV in the mornings and afternoons working with two different age groups. What’s that experience been like?
AK: I never really did these camps as a kid. I was pretty fortunate that a lot of the fathers of my friends coached our teams. One of my friends who also played here for the Solar Bears, Tyler Murovich, his dad ran a rink back home, and he would let us skate as much as we wanted. So while I didn’t go to camps like the one I’m helping out with here, I still was able to take advantage of the resources I had. But having a facility like this here in Florida is a great resource not just for us as pro hockey players, but the kids as well, and it’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
JL: What have you been enjoying most at camp?
AK: I like giving the kids tips and tricks, like during power skating and shooting drills. If you see that one player can make a slight adjustment and become more efficient, it’s fun to guide them and see the change in front of your eyes once they’ve absorbed and processed that information, and put it into practice.
JL: Similar to how you alluded to Drake having to coach a younger generation, is there anything that you’ve realized this week instructing a group of hockey players ranging from roughly seven to 17 years old?
AK: I would say I don’t think you can make black-or-white statements like ‘it’s my way or the highway.’ You really have to cater to each player individually to ensure what you communicate to them is accepted and understood completely. I love teaching, so I could maybe see myself coaching one day, but I would probably try to start with the professional or collegiate level when that day comes. I think I still have some gas left in the tank.
JL: In that case, what do you consider as your personal expectations for the coming season?
AK: I’d like to continue to be a plus-player and maybe push past 20 points, and be considered a reliable guy who can effectively shut down opposing forwards. But if that means I have less points, then so be it. Whatever brings more wins to the organization. At this stage in my career, personal accolades take a backseat to us bringing a championship to Orlando.
Sunshine State Girls Hockeyfest
The Solar Bears, Tampa Bay Lightning, Blue Line Hockey Tournaments and USA Hockey are teaming up to host an all-day event geared towards growing the sport with the Sunshine State Girls Hockeyfest on Saturday, Aug. 17 at the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den. In addition to learn-to-play clinics, skills competition, games and BBQ cookout, there is also a girls-only Try Hockey for Free session in the morning, which is a fantastic way for parents to introduce their daughters to the sport.
Dani Rylan, the commissioner of the National Women’s Hockey League and U.S. Olympic silver medalist Julie Chu are both slated to be on hand for the event along with other NWHL players.
If you’re interested in registering your daughter for the event, click here.
Fucale in Our Future?
With only four players announced for training camp, it’s still early in the offseason, and far too early to predict Orlando’s Opening Night roster for Oct. 12. That being said, one name you can probably familiarize yourself with is Zach Fucale. The goaltender was signed to an AHL-level deal by the Syracuse Crunch shortly before the Fourth of July holiday, and with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization already bursting at the seams with five pro-level goalies under NHL contracts, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Fucale serve in a role identical to the one Martin Ouellette played last season for the Solar Bears.
Fucale spent much of 2018-19 in the ECHL with the Fort Wayne Komets while playing on an NHL contract for the Vegas Golden Knights. When he broke into the pro ranks in the 2015-16 season, Fucale was a touted prospect for the Montreal Canadiens. The 24-year-old netminder is a highly-decorated goaltender who boasts a World Junior Championship gold medal, a Memorial Cup and a Spengler Cup on his résumé, and could help form an impressive tandem with Clint Windsor.
If you want a glimpse of what he’s capable of, his blocker save against the Toledo Walleye was just voted as the winner of the ECHL’s Save of the Year tournament:
Solar Bears Alum Serving Up Suds
Stumbled on this the other day – it’s always interesting to see what hockey players do after they hang up their skates. In the case of former Solar Bears forward Ryan Reaves, he hasn’t given up his playing career, but instead started a second one – establishing his own brewery in Las Vegas, where he currently plays for the Golden Knights.
Elsewhere around the ECHL and Hockey World:
- A familiar face will suit up for a division rival in the coming season, as 2017-18 leading scorer Max Novak will play for the South Carolina Stingrays. Novak was assigned to Orlando two seasons ago while under contract with the Toronto Marlies, and led the Solar Bears in the regular season with 57 points (21g-36a) in 66 games.
- The Jacksonville Icemen will have a noticeably different look this season, as Garet Hunt has inked a two-year deal with the Beijing-based Kunlun Red Star of the Kontinental Hockey League. Kunlun’s team Instagram cited his Chinese heritage as a reason for him signing overseas, as his contract will provide him with enough time to become a naturalized citizen and potentially play for the Chinese Olympic Team when the 2022 Winter Olympics will be hosted in China. Former Solar Bears defensemen Brayden Jaw, Alex Mikulovich and Zach Yuen have previously suited up for Kunlun Red Star.
- Longtime Idaho Steelheads head coach Neil Graham is heading up to the AHL after accepting the assistant position with the Texas Stars, while assistant coach Everett Sheen has been promoted to take over as Graham’s successor in Boise. The Solar Bears are slated to battle Sheen and the Steelheads in November, when Orlando makes its way to the City of Trees for its first-ever battle at CenturyLink Arena.
- After Colin Chaulk moved up to the AHL with the Belleville Bulls, the Brampton Beast found their next bench boss in the form of Spiros Anastas. Anastas was behind the bench for South Carolina last season in his first year as an ECHL head coach, but was relieved of his duties within days after the Solar Bears defeated the Stingrays in the South Division Semifinals. The Solar Bears are scheduled to face Brampton and Anastas in February when the Beast come to town for a pair of games at Amway Center.
- The rumblings out of NHL circles are that Ron Francis is poised to be named the first general manager for the Seattle expansion franchise set to take the ice in 2021-22. Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker broke the news Tuesday night. The yet-to-be-named Seattle club will enter the league using an expansion draft similar to the one used for the Vegas Golden Knights, who went on a run to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season in the league. No pressure, right?