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Chris Heller discusses search for next head coach of Solar Bears

Friday, May 6th
Chris Heller discusses search for next head coach of Solar Bears

When the Orlando Solar Bears drop the puck on the 2022-23 season in October, the team will have a new look behind the bench for the first time since November of 2016, when Drake Berehowsky was brought back for his second stint with the organization 11 games into the 2016-17 campaign.

Following his return to the Solar Bears, Orlando went 201-165-44 (.544) under the direction of Berehowsky, and earned a berth in the Kelly Cup Playoffs for three consecutive seasons from 2017-19.

But a new era for the Solar Bears is set to dawn this offseason, as the team searches for its next head coach.

Earlier this week, Solar Bears president Chris Heller appeared on the opening segment of the Bear Tracks podcast with director of communications and broadcasting Jesse Liebman to help offer a peek behind the curtain into the process for identifying the next bench boss for Orlando.

Here’s a recap of their conversation, along with the episode embedded below.

Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jesse Liebman: Since Orlando parted ways with Drake Berehowsky on April 25, the question on a lot of Solar Bears fans’ minds is what is going to be the direction of the club going forward and when can we possibly expect a head coach to be announced – or is there even a set timeline in stone for what you're looking for?

Chris Heller: So there’s no set timeline, and nothing’s set in stone, as far as announcing or hiring a new head coach. We’re going to take our time; we want to get this decision correct and find the right fit for our team and our organization. I’d be remiss if I did not thank Drake for all the hard work, time and effort he put in into helping get us to where we’re at today, and we’re looking for brighter futures ahead, we’re looking to definitely make the playoffs and make a run at the Kelly Cup here; we just felt that a change was needed to take that next step in the right direction. Drake got us to a certain point and did a great job for us, and sometimes just a fresh voice is needed.

JL: In the ECHL the duties of the head coach also include the responsibilities of recruiting and signing players and facilitating the relationship between an NHL affiliate – whether the title is general manager/VP of hockey operations/manager of hockey operations – they’re chiefly the individual also in charge of the roster construction itself. Is that what you envision for this next head coach, or do you plan on breaking with tradition here at the ECHL level?

CH: As of right now, that is the direction we’re headed – the traditional ECHL setup to where our head coach wears multiple hats – whether it's recruiting, deciding who makes the roster, signings, et cetera. So they’re the de facto general manager, whether the title is GM or not, they basically are the general manager of the franchise, and going out and signing free agents.

Now there is a lot of reliance on your affiliate to help you out and point you in the right direction, help you find some guys and help recruit guys, but at the end of the day it falls on the head coach here. I don’t see us parting from that traditional way right now, but who knows? Something may come up or we may go in a different direction, but as I sit here right now that’s what we're looking at.

JL: As the president of the Orlando Solar Bears, you are chiefly the one who is spearheading this coaching search – who are some of the other voices that may be involved in the conversation, between the ownership/management of the Orlando Magic, as well as Orlando's NHL affiliate in the Tampa Bay Lightning and what role, if any, they might have in this search?

CH: So it’s not just up to me; I have a voice in the decision, but I would be remiss or would be mistaken to say I’m not going to rely on other people. From the Orlando Magic side, [CEO] Alex Martins will definitely be involved in the decision and take part in the process, and from the affiliate side, Tampa will be involved as well. Whether it’s sitting in on interviews and asking questions and giving me input, or giving Alex input. We’re trying to find out ultimately what is the best fit for us, but it also has to be a fit for Tampa. We deal with them on a daily basis, we help develop their players; we want to be a great partner to them. The coaching is another aspect of that branch, so to say, that feeds into their system.

And to go back to your previous question about the head coach being the de facto GM – it’s not an easy job – there’s no ands, ifs or buts about it. It’s not an easy job to be a head coach in this league, and it’s a lot of time, it's a lot of effort. Coaching is just half of it – what happens on the ice is just a part of it. You do have that recruiting pitch, where it’s almost like a college, going out recruiting players to come and sign with you for the season, so it’s not easy; it takes a special breed to do it, and to do it well.

JL: I have to imagine associate coach Jared Staal – who has been with the organization for three years – will be in the mix potentially for that role, but I also imagine over the last two weeks since the announcement was made, you’ve probably received your share of résumés, phone calls, text messages and voicemails from people interested in the position. It probably would be inappropriate to speculate as to who those people would be, but in terms of the pedigree of people that you're getting, I’m sure it's across the board – if you can shed to the fans some light on the variety of people that have come across your way and have thrown their hat into the ring for consideration?

CH: To answer your first part of the question, yes, absolutely – Jared Staal is in the mix as a candidate for the head coach position, and you are absolutely right about the second part – we’ve received dozens, if not over 100 résumés or inquiries in the past week, and it ranges quite frankly from somebody coaching youth AA hockey for ages 10-12, to somebody that has 30 years of professional coaching experience at the NHL, AHL and ECHL levels, so it’s across the board from very little experience to a great amount of experience. It’s been interesting going through the résumés and who’s interested in the job, so it’s been a little eye-opening, and quite frankly, somewhat a little surprising for some of the résumés received, in a good way.

JL: You were named president of the organization just prior to the 2016-17 season; this is the first time that you are overseeing this selection process, as you said earlier you want to make sure you're taking the time to get this one right. Having had a couple of days to digest it as you've turned the page on the previous regime and begin to move forward, what are some of your thoughts that you want to share with the fans?

CH: You are correct this is the first [coaching search] I’m – I guess overseeing is the correct description – but with all those other previous head coaching hires from day one with Drake Berehowsky back in our first season through Vince [Williams], through Anthony [Noreen], back to Drake, I was involved. I sat in on all the interviews, reviewed the résumés as they came through, actually recruited as well, trying to go out and look for a couple coaches and a couple ideas and try to bring in not so much as a coach, but a different voice in some of the interviews for maybe non-traditional coaches coming through, just to hear a different point of view of it. So yes – first time spearheading it – it's not much different from being part of it to spearheading it. The only difference is now is that the résumés are probably getting sent directly to me instead of Joe [Haleski] or Jason [Siegel], and then getting routed to me via email to look at. I'll rely on that experience of going through that with different head coaches coming through and hearing different voices back then to now and to see how it plays out. I’ll be relying on Alex Martins a lot, he’s been through it with the Orlando Magic, and quite frankly we’ll be relying on the Lightning for their thoughts and suggestions, and pluses and minuses, et cetera.

It’s a fine line, and what I mean by that is yes – we want to develop players here – we want to move them on to the AHL and onward to the NHL. That's their goal and that's our goal for them. Quite frankly, that’s our goal for whoever the next head coach is to be. I’d like nothing better for the head coach to come in here, do great for two, three, four seasons – however long it is – get promoted to the AHL, and then get promoted to the NHL, five, six, seven – however long it is down the road – that’s nothing but positives for us and for the organizations. When you have that success and the coach has that success, or the players have that success, it just makes it that much easier to recruit again and recruit the next coach to come through and the next set of players to come through.

We’re looking for someone that’s a go-getter, that’s ready to jump in from day one, develop players to get to the next level, but also win. A fine line is probably not the right description, but there is definitely a balance between developing players and winning hockey games, and it’s great when you can do both, and that’s what we’re looking for.

JL: And certainly, there are many that are of the mind that winning is perhaps the greatest developer of all.

CH: Absolutely. It’s funny, if you go back and look at you when there’s championship teams in the ECHL and AHL, it’s no coincidence that a lot of those players that are on championship teams, the next year they’re up a level, whether it’s going from the ECHL to the AHL, or from the AHL to the NHL. A good example is Tampa, our affiliate. When they were in Norfolk [as the AHL affiliate], the good amount of those players that were on these last two Stanley Cup championship team started in Norfolk, and won an AHL championship and moved on up. It’s amazing what winning does – one, for the organization, but two, for players’ careers as well – you kind of get that label tagged to you and it’s there forever.

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