The big news at training camp on Tuesday — and arguably around the ECHL — was the announcement of Garret Sparks’ signing with the Solar Bears, making his first appearance with the club (albeit a practice) since the 2015-16 season, when he was assigned to Orlando for a one-game conditioning stint by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Solar Bears are an organization he’s always loved, owing in part to his personal and professional growth with the team, especially his second season of professional hockey during the 2014-15 campaign. Since then, he’s reached the NHL (famously recording a shutout in his debut), been named the top goaltender in the AHL and captured a Calder Cup championship, to name just a few of his accomplishments over the past five seasons.
But with the AHL only tentatively scheduled to start on Feb. 5 and the NHL aiming for sometime after the New Year, the goaltender wanted to avoid getting rusty and saw an opportunity to return to where he enjoyed a strong period of success — and perhaps more importantly, happiness.
“Let me just say that I’m super excited to be back here and have another opportunity to play here,” Sparks said in his opening remarks during this afternoon’s virtual media availability for the club’s latest signing. “I felt that my first go-around with the Solar Bears was an opportunity where I found that I fell in love with playing hockey again down here. It just felt like there’s less pressure and more appreciation for guys who go out and play as hard as they can each night, and that’s how I like to do things.
“When I had an opportunity to come back here, it was kind of a no-brainer for me. Obviously I had hoped to sign a deal in NHL free agency, but it’s just a weird time, and when that didn’t work out I figured the best place for me is to go back to somewhere I felt valued and appreciated.”
Solar Bears head coach and general manager Drake Berehowsky certainly values what Sparks can bring to the team.
“Any time you can get a player of his caliber on the ice, it’s fantastic,” Berehowsky said. “I’ve gotten to know him through phone calls and the last couple of days and he seems like a tremendous human being. If he can bring that in, hopefully it’ll rub off on the guys, and they’ll have fun with him I think.”
The addition of Sparks gives Orlando three goaltenders in camp, making for a slightly crowded crease. But as with the rest of the positions in training camp, Berehowsky wants to see competition among all his players. Having a third goaltender in this league during a season with so much uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, isn’t a bad idea either.
The prospect of being able to platoon with fellow netminders Clint Windsor and Michael Lackey and push one other is a scenario Sparks sees as one the three can collectively thrive in.
“I think it’s cool to be a part of that tandem and try to bring whatever I know to the table, and then also one of my favorite things is being able to learn from your goalie partners. I think this is a situation where we have three guys supporting each other how you’d like to see and I think that’s going to take us further.”
Either way, Sparks is here to make the most of what he hopes to be an amazing homecoming. He certainly never forgot the fans in Orlando during his NHL days.
The goalie recalled the infamous Faith & Family Night game against the Gwinnett Gladiators on February 28, 2015, in which he challenged opposing goaltender Mark Guggenburger to a fight by laying his equipment down along the blue line, only to wind up dropping the gloves with Gwinnett’s Dyson Stevenson instead, one of several altercations that took place that night, as the Solar Bears rallied to win a critical game during a frenetic playoff push.
“That building has never been louder. We came back and won that game, and I was like, ‘I’ve never seen the fans make such a difference in a hockey game,’” Sparks said. “We gave them nothing for two periods and they were asleep, and then as soon as we started playing hockey, they were back in it; I’ve never seen anything like it — the fans won that game.”
He expanded on his love for the fanbase even further.
“The fans are what makes playing hockey down here so fun. It’s great going to the rink and having it be warm and sunny, but really what it’s about is stepping on the ice and feeling the electricity of the fans from warm-ups all the way through.”
Blue line prepares to potentially adjust without Brodzinski
The absence of Michael Brodzinski at camp this week is a noted one for the Solar Bears blue line, as the defenseman has remained back in his home state of Minnesota while he ponders his future in professional hockey.
With 73 points in just two seasons patrolling the back end for the Solar Bears (including six goals and 22 assists on the power play), Brodzinski had established himself as one of the most offensively productive defensemen in team history.
With Brodzinski not in the picture - at least for now - the team suspended him prior to the start of camp in order to retain his ECHL playing rights. The question now becomes: should Brodzinski decide to move on from his career, who among the defensemen in camp is capable of picking up the slack offensively from the blue line?
“I think we have a lot of options for guys to step in and take a larger role,” Berehowsky said.
One possibility could be Patrick McNally, who previously was a near point-per-game defenseman with the expansion Worcester Railers in 2017-18. McNally saw time on the power play in his stint with the Railers, and the defenseman picked up three goals and two assists with the man advantage over the course of 29 games.
“I thought McNally was good with his first pass, and was able to find the middle option pretty well,” Berehowsky said. “I think he just has to keep his game simple and he’ll find success.”
Another option could be Rich Boyd, entering his second full season of pro hockey. Last season the Florida native scored eight goals as a rookie to tie Brodzinski for the lead among Orlando’s defensive corps, despite playing in only 38 games. The onus is now on Boyd to prove that he can repeat or surpass last season’s output and make a larger contribution in man-advantage situations.
The Lightning pipeline may have provided some answers as well in the form of Devante Stephens, who the Bolts acquired from Buffalo last November. Stephens, this year playing on an AHL contract, primarily played third-pairing minutes with the Syracuse Crunch last season, but during the 2018-19 campaign he demonstrated he could produce at the ECHL level, with 25 points for the Cincinnati Cyclones.
Assuming they make this season’s squad, some returning players will be wearing different numbers than what they wore the season prior.
This is all part of the typical offseason routine, as players acquired mid-season from the previous year finally have the opportunity to request a preferred jersey number, rather than be handed what’s available off the rack in equipment manager Adam Dexter’s office.
Each offseason an ECHL team’s equipment manager will typically field requests from all players planning on attending training camp and will order jerseys from the manufacturer with those numbers - there is not an endless supply of available jersey numbers available to select.
Matt Alvaro - who inherited 14 in his lone appearance last season - will now sport 9.
Tristin Langan, assigned to Orlando from San Jose last season but now on an ECHL contract with the Solar Bears, has requested 23 due to his appreciation of NBA legend Michael Jordan.
Tad Kozun will take the ice in No. 29 after playing in No. 10 in two games last year, citing a comfortability with 29 after wearing it elsewhere in his career.
Sparks had worn a variety of numbers with in Orlando in the past when he was periodically assigned to the club by the Toronto Maple Leafs, but now that he’s here on his own terms, he’s requested 40, a number he’s previously worn in junior hockey and the NHL.
“So basically Darren Pang was my first ‘goalie coach,’ and he wore 40 for the Blackhawks so when I picked numbers for my first youth team I had to pick three,” Sparks explained. “I picked 20 for Ed Belfour as he was my favorite goalie but my backup choices were 30 for Martin Brodeur and 40 for ‘Panger.’ I think they ended up just getting my order or preference wrong because I ended up with 40 and I actually kind of enjoyed it so I stuck with it!”
Jake Coughler will don the No. 86 jersey for Orlando after suiting up in No. 26 following his acquisition just over a year ago. His father previously wore 88, but rather than take that or 87 (worn in the NHL by Sidney Crosby), Coughler opted for 86.
A smashing good time
Just like on day one of training camp, the first session of day two came to a slightly premature end thanks to a shattered pane of glass. This time, the guilty party was Tristin Langan.
Sparks was more than willing to help with the clean-up.