ORLANDO, Fla. — 22 players touched Solar Bears ice for the first time Friday, as Training Camp for the 2023-24 season opened at the Orlando Ice Den in Orlando, Fla.
Second-year head coach and general manager Matt Carkner is setting out to improve upon the club’s 30-33-8-1 record last season, resulting in the team not qualifying for the Kelly Cup Playoffs. But as the team hit the ice Friday, spirits and expectations were high.
“We’re not happy how last season ended,” said Carkner, whose team was in the playoff hunt until mid-March. “Today was hard, it was grueling, we do that on purpose because we want to see who is going to step up and compete and set the standard for our season. Credit to our guys, everyone pushed the envelope. All in all, we were happy with the work ethic, compete, and the detail.”
Part of that work ethic was put to the test today, as the team’s practice focused on skating and conditioning. 2020-21 ECHL leading scorer Aaron Luchuk participated in his first Matt Carkner-run session today and admitted, “That was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had.”
The Kingston, Ontario native and fan favorite, Luchuk returns to the Solar Bears after scoring over a point per game in his two-year stint with the club from 2020 through 2022 but decided to play last season in Austria and Sweden.
“Personally, it feels great to be back. Orlando has become a home for me and my wife,” said Luchuk. “Not being here last year was a conscious effort to try something new, but we did miss being here. Putting the sweater on again, it’s a strange normal because it feels so normal but different with new faces and new coaches. It’s really exciting to get back here (on the ice) and start building to something I know we can do here.”
Luchuk knows he’ll be leaned on this season to provide the same type of scoring output as his first stint with the hockey club, but understands that it will take a group effort for the team to have success.
“I don’t feel any added pressure. I think any player in pro hockey player feels pressure in some way. There is a lot of players that feel pressure to make a team, a lot of players are fighting for jobs, a lot of players feel pressure to keep those roles that they are used to having. For me, personally, I do have a good track record in this league, and it’s something I pride myself on. There’s always a little bit of nerves going into a season when your role is to score goals or put up points. Right now, I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on getting to know the guys and the coaches. We must build that base layer right now, so we can build up from there.
Even though today was the first on-ice day, the team has been in Orlando since Monday working on off-ice training and medicals. And while all of that is important, there was also some time for the players to get to know each other away from the rink, which if you ask Luchuk, is equally as important.
“Winning teams are teams that like each other and spend time with each other away from the rink and share that bond of enjoying each other’s presence. I think that’s something that (Carkner) had been focused on, especially with me and a couple of the leaders on this team, to really try to bring everyone together. Players can feel a lot of insecurities at times like this, so we’re just trying to help everyone feel as comfortable as possible, and at the same time work as hard as we can on and off the ice.”
The Solar Bears continue their Training Camp this weekend with two on-ice sessions at Orlando Ice Den on Saturday, Oct. 7 and Sunday, Oct. 8 beginning at 11:00 a.m. The practices are free and open to the public.