Before next week’s holiday break, the Orlando Solar Bears still have some business to take care of.
The team will play four games in a five-day stretch, beginning with a three-in-three on the road this weekend at Allen and Tulsa, before flying back to the Sunshine State on Monday and skating on home ice against Atlanta next Tuesday for the annual Teddy Bear Toss game (more on that in a moment).
The Solar Bears were hard at work Tuesday, their second of three straight days of practice to put the sting of last week’s 0-for-3 run behind them.
In addition to addressing his team’s compete level, head coach and general manager Drake Berheowsky pointed a need for his players to quickly locate their responsibilities off the rush and within the defensive zone.
“We’ve had some troubles identifying guys, and we’re giving up a lot of goals that way,” Berehowsky said. “That’s something we need to correct.”
The players appeared to understand the urgency needed to get back on track. Tuesday’s practice ended with a full-tilt defensive zone drill that saw players battling at the front of the net. Chad Duchesne took his share of pucks to the arms, legs and chest, doing his best to block incoming shots from the blue line, some of which left the defenseman bellowing in pain, but the veteran was back to his jovial self by the end of the session, despite the battle scars.
“A couple of bruises, but they’ll heal,” Duchesne said with a grin.
Kyle Topping noted that this is the first time since early November that the team has had a chance to have three straight days of true practice without the interruption of games or travel.
“I think [we’ve] had a pretty hard schedule; we haven’t had much time to practice,” the forward said. “It’s been a nice week getting back to the basics, and honestly just coming out here and having fun and working hard and getting back to the way we play hockey.”
“…And I will go to Texas”
The upcoming pair of games against the Americans will be something of a homecoming for several Solar Bears, who previously played for Allen earlier in their careers as prospects within the San Jose Sharks system, as the Americans had previously had a relationship with the Sharks.
After a slow start to the season, the Americans have won their last three games to get back to the .500 mark at 8-8-3-0. Leading the way is the veteran trio of former league MVP Chad Costello, Jack Combs and Spencer Asuchak.
Defenseman Michael Brodzinski, who spent part of his rookie season of 2016-17 with Allen, knows that Americans, coached by Steve Martinson, who boasts over 1,000 victories on his head coaching resume and 10 titles across five different leagues, will not be short on grit.
“He was tough as a player, so he likes to have a tough hard-working team,” Brodzinski said. “I’m sure it will be a battle.”
Kyle Topping, who began his pro career last season with Allen while waiting for the AHL schedule to get underway for the San Jose Barracuda, views the upcoming matchup as a battle of Orlando’s speed and intensity versus Allen’s physicality, when asked to dissect the differences between Martinson and Berehowsky.
“They’re similar for sure, but obviously there’s some different aspects that they like to preach,” Topping explained. “Here we play a fast game and they play a hard game, so it should be a good test for us this weekend.”
The weekend will also offer the opportunity for some former teammates to reconnect, something that Topping is looking forward to.
“One of my buddies is on that team, so we’ll probably grab dinner one of those nights, but honestly nothing too crazy.”
It’s no secret that the Solar Bears depth had been challenged in recent weeks due to a spate of injuries affecting the lineup.
The good news is that forwards Dylan Fitze and Tyler Bird, along with defenseman Andrew McLean are all now participating in full contact drills.
Although Berehowsky was noncommittal towards offering a timetable for when each of the three players would be ready to get back into the lineup, he appeared encouraged by their progress.
“It’s nice to see them back and see them skating,” Berehowsky said. “Hopefully they’ll get back in sooner than later.”
Ready, Teddy 🧸
In any hockey game, getting that crucial first goal of the game is important. If the game is still in its infancy and tied at 0-0, it puts one team in the driver’s seat. If the team is already trailing, it breathes life back into the bench.
On Tuesday, that first goal for the Orlando Solar Bears will carry some extra weight, as the team prepares to host its annual Teddy Bear Toss game, presented by Janney Roofing, for the first time since the 2019-20 season. The event was not held during the 2020-21 campaign, given the late start to the season, along with the various health and safety protocols in place that limited who could be present on the ice and in the stands.
The last time the Solar Bears held their annual Teddy Bear Toss was December 7, 2019. Tayler Thompson scored on a breakaway and went airborne, triggering an avalanche of fur making its way to the ice for a club-record 8,454 stuffed animals that were collected and given to local children for the holiday season.
It’s something that the players are eager to participate in once again, and adds a little extra incentive to be the one responsible for scoring that critical goal to ignite the evening’s festivities.
There are several players in the lineup who have scored a Teddy Bear Toss goal elsewhere in their careers, with both Luke Boka and Aaron Luchuk having the distinction of having done so for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, where they were teammates for a Memorial Cup championship in 2017.
Although the players are primarily focused on the weekend’s upcoming road games, when pressed, Boka admitted there may inevitably be some friendly wagering among teammates for next Tuesday’s game.
“I think we’re just trying to collectively as a group focus on these games coming up, and really what matters is the two points every night,” Boka said.
From an outsider’s perspective, the smart money may be on forward Tristin Langan, who has two Teddy Bear Toss goals under his belt with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors, and summarized the feat with a confident “Teddy Bear Toss champ!” as he walked back into the locker room.