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Practice Report: Dec. 2, 2020

Wednesday, December 2nd
Practice Report: Dec. 2, 2020

The collective mood around the locker room this week is that this season’s roster is shaping up to be one of the more talented Solar Bears squads in years, but this is a tenor that’s likely shared among all of the 13 ECHL clubs that are participating in the mid-December start to the season.

Subtract the eight teams that have already opted out - that’s roughly 160 players who became free agents - and add in the influx of contracted players from teams’ AHL and NHL affiliates, and you have the makings for arguably the most skilled ECHL season since 2012-13, when the premier Double-A league was flooded with talent from higher levels as a result of the NHL lockout.

During his virtual media availability session on Tuesday, goaltender Garret Sparks spoke to just how much the quality of the on-ice product will look to fans.

“This isn’t the ECHL right now,” Sparks said. “Just the level of guys in camp and what they’re bringing and their desire to make this team, you can tell that we have a lot of high-end skill in here and we’re going to be a good team.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Taylor Cammarata, the 2018 ECHL All-Star Classic MVP and a former New York Islanders draft pick entering his fourth season of professional hockey.

“With only a few teams playing in all of North America, it’s going to be a very competitive league,” the forward said. “I’ve definitely noticed some very solid and skilled players through the first few days of camp. I think that will not only make it more exciting for us players but for the fans as well.”

Breaking a sweat

Cammarata and Johno May, two of Orlando’s major acquisitions after last season had already gotten underway, already had an idea of the tone and pace the head coach Drake Berehowsky had laid out for training camp.

“Training camps are always difficult, but for me personally I just try and get a little better each time I step on the ice and focus on the things that have let me play pro now for what’ll be my fourth year,” Cammarata said. “There haven’t been any real surprises, and being acquired mid-season last year has definitely helped out with being more familiar with the returning guys and the expectations from the coaches and the organization.

“It’s been a good few days, playing here last year you know what’s expected of you each and every day. Drake wants you to play hard and be simple, and I’ve learned to balance my playmaking ability with his system.”

To May, entering his third season, there’s a definite distinction.

“Compared to other training camps I've attended, the intensity at this camp is very high. We have a group of really skilled players here who keep pushing each other to be at their best,” May said. “After everyone kind of settled in after the first skate, I feel like every day the intensity continues to build.”

For newcomers such as rookie defenseman Paul Meyer, a recent Colgate University graduate, there has been a brief adjustment period.

“I’d say the most the eye-opening thing about my first pro camp is the intensity,” Meyer said. “With so many guys fighting for spots on the roster the compete level during both skates has been very high.”

The Solar Bears coach has been pleased with what he’s seen so far out of the group.

“I think every player wants to show their best out there,” Berehowsky said. “They’re all working hard, but they’re also trying to figure out some of the new drills our staff are having them do. These players have a lot on their plate, but the intensity is going to allow us to be a good-skating team.”

Meyer hopes to get in the game

Like many of his new prospective teammates - on a team whose average age is approximately 25 years old - Meyer occasionally plays video games in his downtime, including the popular EA Sports NHL franchise.

If he can make the team’s opening night roster and suit up in at least one ECHL regular season game, he’ll have the opportunity to bring a story that began five years ago full-circle.

In the summer of 2015, a then-teenaged Meyer appeared in a commercial - literally a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo - promoting NHL 16. But he still got a speaking role in a commercial that also features Anaheim Ducks star Ryan Getzlaf and Hollywood actor and director Kevin Smith. His line: “And Parise? Right there.”

“The commercial was an idea from one of my buddy’s cousins back home. His cousin was a rep for an agency and recommended me and some of his buddies to give it a shot,” Meyer recalled. “Compared to the others at the callback I lacked acting experience, but I had the hockey experience going for me. I think the producers saw that aspect and went with me over the others for that reason. Production only took one day down at Shattuck-St. Mary’s rink.”

The following year’s edition added the ECHL and its players to the game. Since then, the game’s users have been able to virtually play as the Solar Bears.

The prospect of having a digital avatar of himself appear in the popular video game franchise is not the reason why he plays hockey, or why he decided to pursue an ECHL career. But it’s a small fringe benefit that Meyer would look forward to if he can make the team.

“Being able to be added into the new NHL game would only boost the crazy story I already have. It’d be something I’d boast about for a long time, and something I’d be eager to show people if ever given the chance!” Meyer said. “Being able to play as myself in a video game I played all the time growing up would be surreal.”

If Meyer can make a name for himself here in Orlando with his on-ice play, he just may have a shot.

“He’s been physical, he competes hard in all his drills,” Berehowsky said. “I like what I see from him.”

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