Ryan Reaves and Ryan Carpenter look at how Orlando influenced their hockey development
By: Jesse Liebman
When the Vegas Golden Knights claimed the Clarence Campbell trophy to represent the Western Conference in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final following their 2-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets last Sunday, both Ryan Reaves and Ryan Carpenter played vital roles in the eventual Game 5 series-clincher. Carpenter assisted on the opening goal for the Golden Knights, while Reaves scored his first goal in a Golden Knights jersey for the game-winning tally.
After the game, Reaves offered the following insight into the the improbable run for the first-year club, whose roster was largely cobbled together via an expansion draft last June:
Ryan Reaves: We call ourselves the Golden Misfits for a reason. I think we’re doing a good job of proving everyone wrong. #VegasBorn
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) May 20, 2018
Ironically, both Reaves and Carpenter came to the Golden Knights through other means, but the Golden Misfits nickname is still apt, considering that like Las Vegas, Orlando could be considered a non-traditional hockey market, and at one point or another in both of their hockey careers, Reaves and Carpenter called the City Beautiful home.
It’s been a busy year for Reaves, who was traded from the St. Louis Blues to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Draft Day last June, and then flipped to the Golden Knights in late February. Reaves, like most in the sports world, probably couldn’t have predicted that he would have had such a pivotal impact in the biggest game played in the franchise’s history to this point, let alone the fact that the Golden Knights would have advanced this far to begin with.
“It’s been a crazy year for me after playing for one team for seven years, and then being on two teams in six months – it’s kind of a whirlwind. The trade to Pittsburgh, it was fun – I got to play with some of the best players in the world, and now I’m here with Vegas, one of the best teams in the league, an expansion team in their first ride – it’s been a fun ride going through everything with this group.”
It’s all the more impressive when considering if you had asked him six years ago, he probably couldn’t guarantee that he’d even be playing in the NHL, with the league in a state of flux.
Reaves joined the Solar Bears during the club’s inaugural ECHL campaign in 2012-13, which coincided with the NHL lockout. While many of his fellow NHLers made the trek overseas to play in Europe and younger prospects were simply shuttled down to the American Hockey League to continue their development, Reaves found himself between a rock and a hard place.
Reaves was no stranger to the ECHL, having also suited up for the Alaska Aces in the 2007-08 season while he was a member of the St. Louis Blues development system. That St. Louis connection was ultimately what led to Reaves signing with Orlando to maintain his form during the lockout – Solar Bears head coach Drake Berehowsky was an assistant coach with the Peoria Rivermen for two seasons just as Reaves was breaking through to reaching the NHL with the Blues – and the opportunity to stay in shape while playing for a familiar face was a key selling point.
“[Drake]’s a great coach. He’s one of those guys who is easy to talk to, but he’ll work with you anytime; he watches your game,” Reaves said. “He knows the game really well — to help me out in Peoria and give me the opportunity to work on some things when I went to Orlando were a big part of my career.”
While constructing the Solar Bears roster for its inaugural season in the ECHL, Berehowsky saw an opportunity to bring in a former player with NHL experience, but Reaves was initially hesitant to commit, thinking the lockout would be over sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, Reaves explained, he was content to stay in shape by practicing with several fellow locked-out players in his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. But as the league’s work stoppage dragged on into November and early December, the forward noticed his fellow athletes start to take time off from their workout routines, while he was hungry for game action. It was at that point, Reaves figured, that a trip back to the ECHL would be worthwhile.
“I think the biggest thing was that Drake let me try some things that I probably wouldn’t try in the NHL, skating through the neutral zone trying to go through two or three guys,” Reaves said. “When I was in Orlando, he let me try things like that and helped me build my confidence.”
The month-long trip back to the Double-A level also offered the then 25-year-old Reaves some perspective.
“Well the ECHL has good players that are on the come-up, and you’re seeing guys in the NHL that started in the Coast,” Reaves explained. “I saw it in my development at the time with my first year in Alaska. I wasn’t maybe the most skilled player then, but by the time I got to Orlando, I was able to measure how far I had come.”
Although Reaves is known more for his ability to antagonize opponents at the NHL level, Reaves flourished offensively in 13 games with the Solar Bears, tallying nine points (6g-3a) and 34 penalty minutes. His first goal with Orlando was the game-winner in a 6-2 romp over Fort Wayne on Dec. 9, and he then set a club record with two shorthanded goals in an 8-4 home victory over the Florida Everblades on Dec. 28.
“It was nice [to be close to a point-per-game], but it would have been nicer if I could’ve brought that back to St. Louis at the time,” Reaves said with a chuckle. “I don’t get to celebrate goals that often.”
The Amway Center faithful also left an impression that sticks with the eight-year NHL veteran to this day. Reaves drew parallels to how passionate the fans are in both Orlando and Las Vegas.
“I see it now in Vegas – how you would never think that a team in the desert would do so well, and this is probably the best support I’ve seen with an NHL team,” Reaves said. “When I was going down to Florida, I wasn’t expecting fans to be watching ECHL hockey when it’s sunny out, but the fans were out there, they were buzzing, and it was fun playing in front of big crowds in Orlando.”
Now, Reaves is only four wins away from becoming the first former Solar Bears player to win the Stanley Cup after playing in Orlando (Chad LaRose had won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06 and attempted a brief comeback in pro hockey with the Solar Bears in 2016-17).
“Winning the Cup alone is something that every player dreams of as a kid. I think the path that I’ve taken, and all of the leagues and teams I’ve played for along the way helped me develop and I owe a lot of that to those teams and coaches that helped me. The journey comes through Orlando, and it’ll be nice to hoist the Cup if we can.”
While Reaves hails from the hockey hotbed of Winnipeg, Carpenter is a trailblazer of sorts. The Oviedo native made his NHL debut with the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 12, 2015 against the Minnesota Wild, becoming the first player hailing from Central Florida to play in the NHL.
That achievement on its own is remarkable, but Carpenter’s journey is just as impressive, considering he got his start here in Orlando.
For Carpenter, the Timber Creek High School graduate learned the game on the two sheets of ice at the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den, the Solar Bears’ practice facility, and attended International Hockey League Solar Bears games at the O-Rena. It was there, watching the likes of Hubie McDonough, Mark Beaufait and Zac Boyer that planted the seed in the young Carpenter.
While Carpenter’s talent was evident, his determination was what truly stood out to RDV staff members such as power skating coach Sondra Pacey, who told the West Orange Times, “I thought it was more that he was a hard worker. He had desire, he was the first player there and the last one out.”
Eventually, a need to play against stronger competition brought Carpenter to Michigan to continue his development, before making his way to the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League, the top junior circuit in the United States, and eventually into the college ranks with the Bowling Green State University Falcons.
Undrafted out of the Falcons program, Carpenter began his pro career within the Sharks development system, where he was a teammate of current Solar Bears forward Chris Crane. After a number of years bouncing back-and-forth between the big club and it’s affiliate in the AHL, the forward was picked up by the Golden Knights after he was placed on waivers in December; since then, he’s stuck around with Vegas, posting 14 points (9g-5a) in 36 regular season games, and has added five assists in 13 playoff contests.
Carpenter is confident that although he may have been the first player from Orlando to play in the NHL, he certainly won’t be the last. He points to players like Apopka native Kyle Bauman – who captained his college team at Bemidji State and joined the AHL’s Ontario Reign this spring – as part of the next wave of Orlando-area hockey talent to join the pro ranks.
“It’s special. Hopefully there are kids in Central Florida who fall in love with the game and [me reaching the NHL] gives them hope that it’s possible, but most importantly to keep having fun.”
With four more wins for the Golden Knights, Carpenter could also earn the distinction of being the first hockey player who hails from the region to win the Stanley Cup. Now, all that stands in their way is Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
“At first [winning the Conference Final] was surreal that it happened so fast, it’s an amazing feeling, but then there’s the feeling that we need to still be focused on winning, and then [on Wednesday] finding out that we’re playing the Capitals,” Carpenter said. “It makes it real now that we know our opponent and we’re starting to plan the logistics of our schedule as a team and start to go through scouting and game-planning. It’s been a good run so far, and hopefully with a few practices we’ll be ready to go.”
It’s fair to say when Game 1 of the Final gets underway tonight, there will be plenty of family and friends back home in Orlando supporting the Golden Knights.
2018 Stanley Cup Final Schedule
Game 1 – Monday, May 28 – 8 p.m. ET – Las Vegas
Game 2 – Wednesday, May 30 – 8 p.m. ET – Las Vegas
Game 3 – Saturday, June 2 – 8 p.m. ET – Washington D.C.
Game 4 – Monday, June 4 – 8 p.m. ET – Washington D.C.
Game 5 – Thursday, June 7 – 8 p.m. ET – Las Vegas*
Game 6 – Sunday, June 10 – 8 p.m. ET – Washington, D.C.*
Game 7 – Wednesday, June 13 – 8 p.m. ET – Las Vegas*