Hockey is a game of speed.
On Sunday the Solar Bears got a little faster.
The Solar Bears added Tyler Bird to their roster after the forward was returned to the team following a four-game tryout with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch.
The addition of Bird, who accepted the tryout prior to Orlando’s season-opening game on Oct. 23, means the Solar Bears added arguably their fastest player back to the active roster, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, when the Solar Bears will need their legs for an upcoming week that will see the team play five games in a six-day span, starting Tuesday at home against the Jacksonville Icemen.
For Bird, the fourth-year pro gets a chance to build on a 2020-21 campaign that saw him establish new career-highs in goals, assists and points.
As the Solar Bears returned to the ice on Monday at the AdventHealth Rink at Amway Center for a rare downtown practice on a non-gameday, it was apparent that the faster pace of the AHL has Bird ready for what awaits him in Orlando.
“It’s definitely still a fast game, and I think I can use that a little bit to my advantage down here. It’s good get back with the guys and get a little chemistry going.”
It’s Bird’s acceleration that can force opposing defensemen to play back on their heels, and his willingness to withstand abuse by going to the front of the opposing net that allows him to be an offensive threat when he’s on the ice for the Solar Bears.
After getting into four AHL games while with the Crunch, Bird knows that grind of an ECHL season is going to feature grueling weeks such as the one that lies ahead.
“[The coaching staff] has done a really good job as always, just preaching the same habits that we always have,” Bird said of the team’s preparation. “This is the kind of league where you’re going to have weeks that are really tough, so I think just buying into the system and playing the right way when you’re tired keeps everyone in check.”
At practice Monday, Bird was placed on what is arguably the team’s current number-one line on the depth chart, skating alongside Ian Parker and Aaron Luchuk, giving the unit a diverse blend of talent.
“‘Parks’ is a really big boy, so I think it’ll be good to have some big size on that line, and obviously we all know ‘Looch’ is super-skilled, and he’s off to a really good start here. It’s always great to play with him, he’s going to get you the puck, he can score some goals and make some good plays.”
One of the newest additions to the Solar Bears during the recent road trip to Norfolk is forward Canon Pieper, who began the season with the expansion Iowa Heartlanders. The forward picked up his first career ECHL goal for the Solar Bears in the first period of Friday’s 6-5 OT loss to the Admirals, and is hoping his performance helps garner an extended look from the coaching staff.
“I was with Iowa for the first weekend of the season, and just went back to Boston, and got a call [on Thursday] and was on a flight 10 hours later, so it was a whirlwind 24 hours, but it was awesome,” Pieper said, recounting meeting the team in Norfolk. “Flew right in, met the boys, and then it was game time.”
It didn’t take long to find his way onto the scoresheet with his new club, throwing a shot on net parallel to the goal line midway through the first period that squeaked through Admirals goaltender Dylan Wells.
“We made a good low cycle, and I just kind of shoulder checked, and was able to make a play, just trying to get to the puck to be honest with you, and I didn’t even realize it went in until my line mates came toward me,” Pieper admitted. “It was more a team goal than anything, and I was just on the good end of it, I guess.”
Now that he has arrived at his new home, Pieper is focused on the present and getting to know his teammates better.
“I’m just getting more comfortable every day, and everybody’s been awesome, making me feel welcome and at home. I’m happy to be here, and do whatever I can do to help the team.”
Boka continuing to battle
In addition to Pieper scoring in his first game on Friday, the Solar Bears also got first career goals from Luke Boka and Ian Parker in that same game.
For Boka, it was a lengthy wait for the former Windsor Spitfires captain, who not only missed the entirety of last year while his Queen’s University team was forced to cancel their season due to the coronavirus pandemic, but was also forced to wait when training camp started in October until he was medically cleared to play.
After finally getting activated in time for Thursday’s game, Boka broke through on Friday when he tipped a pass from Fabrizio Ricci past Wells with just over half a minute in the first period to make it 4-1 for Orlando.
“It felt great. I haven’t played in a while, so it definitely was a quick monkey off my back, but I’m real excited. I’m hoping I can keep this thing going, and I’m just looking for some consistency in my game every night.”
Although the game’s (and the past week’s) eventual outcome was not the one the Solar Bears had drawn up, Boka remains undeterred.
“I think that obviously we would have liked to come out with a better result, but in that second game I think we battled pretty hard and we gave it a good effort, and we salvaged a point there, so hopefully we can get things going in the right direction tomorrow night.”