By Jameson Cooper, Staff Writer
As lockout talks continue to drag on into the end of October, many hockey fans are seeking refuge from CBA debates and public relations wars. In the spirit of this journey many fans have turned to other hockey outlets in order to satisfy their desires. Various offshoots of the NHL like the American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey league have become metaphorical methadone clinics for hockey addicts around the USA and Canada.
On Saturday October 20th when normally many fans would be catching their favorite NHL team in action either in person or on television, I instead found myself driving three hours north to Orlando Florida to catch the Orlando Solar Bears of the East Coast Hockey league in their home opener vs. Florida Everblades.
The Solar Bears are beginning their first season in the ECHL since they disbanded after the International Hockey League folded in 2001. Thanks to a strong support from the city of Orlando the team is back in action and playing as a minor league affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. The Solar Bears are blessed to be playing in one of the most state of the art arenas in sports, the Amway Center. Normally used for NBA games, the Amway Center opened up just over 9,000 seats for the Solar Bears, and amazingly every one of them was sold.
As I made my way out of the Florida heat and into the brisk rink temperatures, I was immediately taken back into a hockey state of mind that I had not experienced since the Florida Panthers elimination from the post season a few months prior.
The crowd around me was spectacular and as I made my way through the corridors of the Amway Center I began to realize that these fans were not simply here to support the Solar Bears, but also hockey in general. While there were many fans sporting Solar Bear’s jerseys, either recently purchased or dug up from the team’s original incarnation, there were also hockey fans of all kinds to be seen.
The Flyers, Rangers, Devils, Red Wings, Panthers, Lightning and many other team jerseys could be spotted throughout the arena. Every fan showing their support for the game and to cheer on the sport that they are currently being deprived of on the professional level.
The game began with a grand ceremony as a video presentation paid tribute to the team’s previous successes as well as celebrating the return of hockey to Orlando. Players were met with a standing ovation as each Solar Bear skater was individually introduced onto the ice. A pyrotechnic display accompanied the players as they made their way to center ice, which helped ignite the crowd’s fervor even further.
As a hockey starved fan, the first period could have not gone any better. The first full period was a beautiful showcase of everything there is to love about the game. Four combined goals between the Solar Bears and Everblades kept the fans on the edge of their seats for most of the first twenty minutes. Midway through the first a spectacular fight broke out between the Everblade’s Leigh Salters and the Solar Bear’s Josh Caron.
The cheers grew louder as Caron and Salters went blow for blow for what seemed like forever. When the two were finally separated, a standing ovation followed Caron was he made his way to the penalty box. When the first period finally came to a end, I predict even the biggest hockey skeptic in the building was having a great time.
During the first intermission I was able to make my way around the arena and talk to a few fans about their experience and what brought them to the game that night.
“My son and I had been making road trips to Lightning games in Tampa for years, with the NHL in a lockout this (The Solar Bears) became the closest hockey option, and from what we’ve seen so far this could be a new tradition,” Brian from Kissimmee Florida said.
Other fans conveyed equal enthusiasm for hockey in Orlando, as well as skepticism about current NHL labor negotiations. No interview however could properly convey the joy I saw on everyone’s faces as I made my way to the concessions.
The action in the 2nd and 3rd periods continued to display the excitement and electricity of hockey to a packed house. The Everblades and Solar Bears traded two more goals before sending the game into overtime and an eventual shootout to decide the winner. Through 11 nail biting rounds fans were put through a roller coaster of emotions as neither team was able to close out the game.
Then finally in the 12 round of the shootout, Solar Bear’s defenseman Sean Lorenz was able to score, thus sending the Solar Bears to a 4-3 OT victory in their home opener. Fans stayed on their feet to shower the home team with applause as they skated around center ice with their sticks in the air to salute the 9,000 strong that came to celebrate the return of hockey to Orlando.
The smiles were contagious as I excited the Amway Center surrounded by thousands of rabid hockey fans. With no hockey on the horizon for the NHL, I can’t think of a better substitute than the ECHL or AHL for those looking to experience the game. While the minor leagues may not have the big names or premier establishments it still has the same heart and intensity that you would find in any NHL arena.
For around $25.00 dollars a ticket depending on where you are, I can’t think of a better way for a hockey fan to spend their fall as the NHL and NHLPA continue arguing over who really “cares” about the fans.