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Olympic ties run deep for Solar Bears

Wednesday, February 2nd
Olympic ties run deep for Solar Bears

The time difference between Beijing and Orlando is just over half a day’s time. So if you want to watch the United States take the ice for the first time when the 2022 Games open up tomorrow when the Women’s team takes on Finland in the preliminary round, you may want to brew a strong cup of coffee for the 8:10 a.m. ET puck drop.

But the 13-hour difference makes no matter. Both the Men’s and Women’s hockey tournaments are going to be must-watch television. And if you keep an eye out, you may see a few individuals with ties to the Orlando Solar Bears participating in the Games.

After Milos Bubela (2016-17) became the first former ECHL Solar Bears player to compete in the Olympics when he suited up for Slovakia at the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, the 2022 Beijing games will feature the largest-ever representation of former Solar Bears players in the biggest high-profile international hockey tournament.

Mārtiņš Dzierkals – Latvia

Dzierkals suited up for the Solar Bears during the 2017-18 season, where the rookie pro posted 15 goals and 21 assists in 51 games - the Solar Bears were 14-0-0-0 in games when Dzierkals found the net - then added one goal and two assists in seven postseason contests as Orlando advanced to the second round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs.

Unable to secure a full-time NHL contract from the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former third-round selection in the 2015 draft returned to Europe, where he’s played in some the top leagues across the continent.

Dzierkals will be making his Olympic debut with Latvia, which is participating in the Games for only the fifth time since the end of the Cold War and is looking to improve upon its eighth-place finish in 2014 in Sochi.

Kristián Pospíšil – Slovakia

Pospisil, like Dzierkals, was assigned to the Solar Bears via the Toronto affiliation in 2017-18, when he recorded 26 points (13g-13a) in 51 games. After missing all of the following season while assigned to the Newfoundland Growlers, Pospisil made his way back across the Atlantic Ocean, where he’s played part of the last three seasons with Finnish side Lukko, before he made his way to HC Davos of the Swiss National League.

This will be Pospisil’s first Olympic appearance, after helping the Slovaks qualify in August. Slovakia had its best finish at the 2010 Vancouver Games, when it placed fourth, losing the bronze medal match to Finland.

Ethan Werek – China

Werek’s stay with Orlando was brief. He signed a contract with the Solar Bears early in the 2016-17 season, and appeared in only two games, where he tallied one goal and two assists before earning an AHL call-up to the Texas Stars. In 2019, Werek made the move to Kunlun Red Star, a Beijing-based pro team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, which has recruited a handful of North American players with Chinese heritage to help form the nucleus of China’s national squad.

Werek, who also comes from Jewish heritage and was born and raised in Ontario, has grandparents who were born in China, and thus was able qualify as a “heritage” player.

There were some speculation that China, which is icing Men’s and Women’s team for the first time in the Olympics, would not be admitted by the International Ice Hockey Federation to participate in the tournament over fears of an inability to field competitive rosters. The IIHF ultimately ruled that China would be able to participate in December.

Zach Yuen – China

Yuen suited up for the Solar Bears in 2013-14 after briefly appearing in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies. The defenseman logged 12 points (1g-11a) in 48 games with Orlando that year, and after a few seasons of bouncing around the ECHL, Yuen was tapped to be part of the inaugural squad for Kunlun Red Star in the 2016-17 season, and notably was the first player of Chinese heritage to score a goal for the club.

Outside of the four former players, there are a handful of other individuals participating in the Olympics with ties to the Solar Bears.

Former assistant coach Matt McIlvane is on the coaching staff for Germany’s Men’s team, and helped the Germans capture a silver medal in 2018.

Solar Bears defenseman Michael Brodzinski will be proudly watching his fiancé, Dani Cameranesi, a forward for the U.S. Women’s team, compete in her second Olympic Games after helping the Americans claim gold in 2018.

“We started dating my freshman year at [the University of Minnesota], so we’ve been together for almost nine years now, and I’ve got to see her play throughout her entire career basically, and it’s awesome,” Brodzinski enthused. “I support her to the fullest, and it’s just awesome to see what she’s doing.”

Brodzinski recalled the emotions he felt when Cameranesi and the Americans defeated the Canadians in a pulse-pounding gold medal game that went all the way to a sudden-death shootout.

“I remember sitting there watching on my laptop in the hotel room when I was in San Jose, and just watching them win the gold medal in the shootout, I jumped out of my bed - I was screaming.”

It’s an outcome Brodzinski is hoping to see again for his longtime partner.

“I just hope she does the best she can do, I know she will, and hopefully she can come back with another gold.”

Solar Bears associate coach Jared Staal will get to watch his older brother Eric captain the Canadians, as they look to earn their first gold since 2014. It will be Eric’s second Olympic Games, after first participating as an NHL player in 2010 in Vancouver, when he was still a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.

“Any time you get a chance to represent your country is exciting, and being in the Olympics is a real cool experience, our family is ecstatic and we know he’s excited to get going,” the younger Staal said.

“I was in Canada when they won [in 2010], so it was pretty crazy. I remember the streets being filled with cars honking their horns, the whole country was together and ecstatic for the win on home ice,” he added.

The fact that Eric - the elder statesman on the Canadian roster at age 37 - will serve as team captain is not lost on Jared, nor is it a surprise.

“I know it means he’s probably more experienced than most of the guys on the team,” Staal joked. “He deserves it, he’ll be a great leader for them and he’ll have a great tournament.”

And if these connections haven’t been enough, a Solar Bears jersey has made its way to Beijing.

Chief ice maker Rick Ragan, who has served as a Zamboni driver at Amway Center for Solar Bears games, has brought a Solar Bears sweater with him.

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