What happens when you’re a hockey player without the opportunity to play hockey?
For many players last season, that was an unfortunate reality that many players across North America dealt with in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. With nearly half of the ECHL opting out of the 2020-21 campaign, hundreds of players were without a contract and a place to play, and so were forced to take matters into their own hands to maintain their conditioning and skills in the hopes of continuing their careers when the hockey world returned to a modicum of normalcy.
For Dylan Fitze, who initially was set to return to the Kansas City Mavericks following a trade with Orlando near the tail-end of the prematurely canceled 2019-20 season, he spent last season in his home province of Ontario, getting on the ice when it was possible.
The forward is certainly glad to be back in Orlando, even as the pace and intensity of training camp ramps up. At the end of the day, it’s what he signed up for.
“Once you were able to get on the ice you made the most of it. As for getting back into the swing of things, you jump right in. I don’t think you dip your toe in at all, you just get going and get back into it, get back your timing and everything and feel good about yourself.”
With American Hockey League camps beginning simultaneously, the Solar Bears have not yet witnessed the trickle-down effect of affiliated players being assigned to Orlando; goaltender Amir Miftakhov is currently the only non-ECHL contracted player on the camp roster.
For Fitze, the payoff is a group that appears to be coming together quickly.
“Everyone’s coming to the rink, saying ‘hi,’ everyone knows each other’s names,” Fitze said. “I know previous years we’ve had almost 30 guys in camp, so it was a little tougher and more impersonal, so I think it’s easier to get to know guys on a first-name basis and where they’ve played and where they’re coming from, and then you get out on the ice and compete with them.”
Forward Nick Bligh experienced similar challenges with no contract after playing with the Gladiators in 2019-20, who opted out of the pandemic season. Bligh split the past year training in his native Boston and Charleston, “just trying to make sure I was ready wherever the next opportunity was and just happy to be back on the ice again.”
Bligh enjoyed his most offensively productive season in 2018-19, during a stretch with Atlanta in which he compiled 44 points (22g-22a) in 51 games. But he accepts that there’s a number of ways he can earn a permanent place on the roster, “Whether that’s getting in and being physical on the puck on the forecheck or trying to get some points - it’s a matter of finding a role.”
Like Fitze, rookie forward Ian Parker was based in Ontario last season, in what would have been his final season with the University of Windsor Lancers. But while U Sports, the governing body for Canadian university athletics canceled the men’s and women’s hockey seasons, Parker and his teammates still practiced together. And when ice wasn’t available to the Lancers program, Parker was resourceful, using a perk of his employment at a hockey gym to gain access to the facility.
If there’s one thing that Parker clearly brings to the table, it’s size - his Windsor bio lists him at 6-foot-9, 249 pounds - and that’s where Parker feels he excels, “using my size to my advantage in the corners and in front of the net. I try to use a bot of speed down the wall and take the puck to the net.”
It’s been over a year that these players have seen game action, but when the puck drops on the preseason exhibitions next week, they will undoubtedly be ready.