The Solar Bears took the ice on Thursday morning for their intra-squad Purple vs. Orange scrimmage, a practice that’s been in place since the 2017 preseason under head coach and general manager Drake Berehowsky.
With so many bodies in training camp, the scrimmage offered Berehowsky and assistant coach Jared Staal a bird’s-eye view of the roster they have attempted to assemble. The duo stood perched above the ice from the observation deck, keeping a keen watch on an up-tempo game simulation.
The squads deployed the following combinations:
The game featured two 35-minute halves with a running clock, broken up by an ice-resurfacing. The two on-ice officials for the scrimmage, Jason Leisten and Stoan Pacey, kept the game at a brisk pace and allowed players to maintain a largely physical tone, only stopping the game to award two penalty shots to forward Tyler Bird during the second half. The forward converted on one opportunity to give Team Purple a 9-3 edge.
Team Orange ultimately added another late goal to pull to within five, but the score belies how truly tight the staff felt the back-and-forth game was.
“Overall, I thought everyone came to play and the game turned out to be very competitive,” Berehowsky said. “I thought Bird had an excellent game along with [Johno] May and [Aaron] Luchuk - they all made good decisions.”
Bird looking to carry strong finish to 2019-20 into this season
It’s no secret that injuries took their toll on the Solar Bears last season. But with so many players out as the season got into its final months, it provided an opportunity for Bird to showcase what he could do at the next level, earning a try-out with the Syracuse Crunch in late February.
In five games, Bird chipped in two assists: one, a helper on a game-winner, the other on a game-tying goal that sparked another win for Syracuse.
The third-year forward is ready to build on that this season with the Solar Bears, and following Thursday’s scrimmage, he appears to feel he’s on the right path.
“I feel confident this year coming into camp knowing what Drake expects from me,” Bird said. “I think I showed that today in the scrimmage using my speed, just playing hard and making right decisions to keep things simple.”
Looking elsewhere throughout the lineup, there’s no doubt there’s plenty of talent in camp, and the former Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick is cognizant of that as well, pointing out what he observed of his teammates in the scrimmage.
“[Aaron] Luchuk looks really skilled - he’s got really good hands around the net and makes smart plays all over the ice,” Bird said. “[Kevin] Lohan looked good on defense today - he’s a big body and always makes things difficult for forwards to play against.”
Bradford returns, a little older and wiser
When he was first assigned to the Solar Bears in October of 2015, Erik Bradford was a fresh-faced 20-year-old rookie.
At the time, the forward on an American Hockey League contract with the Toronto Marlies wasn’t even guaranteed a spot in the lineup due to the sheer number of other contracted players assigned to the club that season.
But he gradually earned his ice time under then-head coach Anthony Noreen, and by season’s end he managed to set a club record point streak for first-year players, putting up 10 points in 10 games.
“It’s crazy to think when I first came down here I was only 20 years old, not knowing what to expect,” Bradford said. “My game has come a long way and I’d like to think I’ve established myself. Hopefully things coming full circle here allow me to be a big contributor on this team.”
Since then, he’s blossomed into one of the more consistently productive scorers in the ECHL, as he’s suited up with several organizations - including his hometown Brampton Beast - in subsequent years, but with the North Division opting out of the 2020-21 season due to limitations brought about by COVID-19, a reunion with Brampton wasn’t possible this year.
Thus, an opportunity to return to where he first learned what it means to be a pro.
“He is a proven player in this league,” Berehowsky said of his latest acquisition. “We expect to be able to lean on him in all situations.”
“I’m excited to be back. I am still trying to get my game to the next level and after talking with Drake, and his ability to help guys get over that hurdle it just seemed like a good fit,” Bradford said. “I just consider myself very fortunate to have the ability to get back out and play again.”