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Solar Bears, ECHL ties abound as 2021 Stanley Cup Final opens tonight

Monday, June 28th
Solar Bears, ECHL ties abound as 2021 Stanley Cup Final opens tonight

As the 2021 Stanley Cup Final opens tonight in Tampa, there will be a noted ECHL presence in the lineups for both clubs, along with some ties to the Solar Bears.

One player whose name you haven’t heard during these playoffs - but certainly has the most prominent association to the Solar Bears - is goaltender Christopher Gibson, who is the No. 3 goalie on the Lightning playoff roster behind Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney.

The 28-year-old netminder spent part of his rookie pro season in 2013-14 with the Solar Bears, when he was a prospect within the Toronto Maple Leafs pipeline, and notably helped the Solar Bears stave off elimination in Game 5 of the opening round with a 41-save effort against Cincinnati in Orlando’s first overtime win in the Kelly Cup Playoffs.

Gibson’s time with the Maple Leafs ended prior to the 2015-16 season, when he was packaged to the New York Islanders in a multi-player trade, and eventually made his NHL debut that season, becoming the third former Solar Bears player to reach the NHL. The goaltender spent the majority of his tenure with the Islanders playing for New York’s AHL affiliate in Bridgeport.

After signing as a free agent with Tampa Bay this past offseason, Gibson spent much of the season in Syracuse and with the Lightning taxi squad, before making his Lightning debut - and his first NHL appearance in over two years - on April 4 vs. Detroit. He then got the start on May 2 in a rematch at Detroit, this time earning the victory with a 22-save outing.

Should the Lightning win the Stanley Cup, it is unlikely that Gibson would have his name engraved on hockey’s sacred chalice, as rules dictate that a player must have played, or dressed as the backup goaltender, for half of the team’s regular season games or one game played in the Stanley Cup Final in order to have their name engraved on the trophy. Neither Spencer Martin nor Scott Wedgewood, who were part of the Lightning’s playoff bubble roster in 2020, qualified to have their names engraved on the Cup.

That being said, Gibson would still have played a part in helping the Lightning capture its third Stanley Cup.

In the last decade, forward Yanni Gourde has emerged as arguably the most prominent position player that the ECHL has advanced to the NHL. His ascension to hockey’s highest level is the stuff of Hollywood movies. Gourde split his first two seasons of professional hockey with the San Francisco Bulls and Kalamazoo Wings before permanently establishing himself in the AHL, and eventually making his NHL debut with the Lightning in the 2015-16.

Gourde is tied for fourth on the Lightning with five playoff goals, and scored the club’s biggest goal of the postseason, a shorthanded game-winner in the Bolts’ 1-0 Game 7 victory over the New York Islanders in the semi-finals.

Other ECHL alumni on Tampa Bay’s roster and coaching staff include forward Daniel Walcott, who suited up in a handful of games with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits in the 2015-16 season and made his NHL debut earlier this year, and assistant coach Derek Lalonde, who served as the head coach of the Toledo Walleye from 2014-16.

Tampa Bay’s opponent, the Montréal Canadiens, have a slightly larger ECHL presence in their lineup.

  • Alex Belzile - The 29-year-old forward spent several seasons in the ECHL, notably winning Kelly Cups with Alaska in 2014 and Colorado in 2017, before finally breaking through to the NHL in the 2020 playoff bubble, and appearing in two regular season games this year
  • Ben Chiarot - The veteran defenseman of 415 regular season games played 24 games with the Colorado Eagles during the 2011-12 season, when he was a prospect in the Winnipeg Jets’ system
  • Brett Kulak - Kulak appeared in 39 games with the Colorado Eagles in his first full season of professional hockey when he was a prospect with the Calgary Flames; he’s since appeared in 260 career NHL games with Calgary and Montréal
  • Michael McNiven - Still yet to make his NHL debut, McNiven is the Habs’ No. 4 goalie behind Carey Price, Jake Allen and Cayden Primeau; Solar Bears fans likely recall his name as he appeared in games against Orlando last season with Jacksonville and Norfolk  

As a player, Montréal head coach Dominique Ducharme suited up in 19 games with Raleigh and Huntington in the mid-90s. Assistant coach Alex Burrows also began his professional career in the ECHL with the Greenville Grrrowl, Baton Rouge Kingfish and Columbia Inferno before making a name for himself in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks.

Outside the context of the ECHL, Solar Bears head coach and general manager Drake Berehowsky played with Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin on the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins, assistant coach Luke Richardson on the 1990-91 Toronto Maple Leafs and goaltending director Sean Burke on the 2001-02 Phoenix Coyotes.

Staal in the Family

There’s also a family tie to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final for the Solar Bears: you can probably forgive assistant coach Jared Staal for cheering for the Canadiens during these playoffs.

After all, family comes first.

Older brother Eric, now in his 17th NHL campaign, is chasing his second Stanley Cup ring after winning the championship in 2005-06 with the Carolina Hurricanes, the team for which Jared made his NHL debut with in 2012-13 alongside Eric and brother Jordan.

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