Lost in the moderately interesting stories of the past few days, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a new ECHL affiliate. The blue and white recently agreed to join the Minnesota Wild in usage of the Orlando Solar Bears for the players who don’t make the cut with the Toronto Marlies. Let’s talk a bit about who they are, and what this means.
A Brief History
The Solar Bears, who we can refer to as the Greatest Hockey Team To Ever Exist (TM), blessed the world with their debut in 1995. They didn’t start in the ECHL, rather playing in the International Hockey League. This was in an era where the IHL was stronger than the AHL in ability, and trying to position themselves as a threat to the NHL in the long term. Of course, that didn’t work out, and five years later, the league ran out of money and all but six AHL-bound teams folded. The Solar Bears were considered, but ultimately, the owner chose to bring over his other team, the (2013 Calder Cup Champion) Grand Rapids Griffins instead. Despite killing the perfect brand, it was probably for the best.
In their IHL time, the Solar Bears performed rather well, never finishing lower than second in their division or conference, and could brag about 94 points being their low point. Orlando won their first round matchup in every year, lost in the conference finals in 1998, lost in the finals in 1996 and 1999, and won the last ever Turner Cup in 2001.
Ten years later, the solar purple, seafoam green, sunset orange, and white got back together again. With the ECHL granting a new franchise to Orlando, it was only logical to go with the once dominant name and similar logo. Their first season didn’t go as good as it did in the IHL, however, finishing with a 28-37-3-4 record, good for 63 points and dead last in the South Division (4th last overall).
The Solar Bears
are were coached by Drake Berehowsky, a Toronto Native who played 5 partial seasons with the Leafs after they selected him 10th overall in 1990. However, he has moved on to Lethbridge, leaving them without a current connection to the Leafs. Um, Allan Bester was once their starting goalie in the IHL days. Close enough?
Why This Is Important
Is there a reason for being excited that the affiliate is specifically the Solar Bears? Other than them being the Greatest Hockey Team To Ever Live (TM), with a logo, colour scheme, and name that came straight from the hockey heavens.. not really. There’s no significant benefit one way or another when it comes to your ECHL affiliate. Realistically, travel times in case of emergency call ups are the biggest factor, and flights between Toronto and Florida are frequent enough.
But what’s important here is the fact they have an affiliate to begin with. You may roll your eyes at that, but the Leafs and Marlies didn’t have an ECHL affiliate last year, severing ties with the Reading Royals. When push came to shove, they had to scatter their player assignments all over the place. Brad Ross played five games in Idaho, while Sam Carrick played 50 in the same city. Jamie Devane and Andrew Crescenzi spent twelve and twenty three respective games in San Francisco. Mark Owuya played six games with Las Vegas the first time he was sent down, and went to Reading for his second lap, winning the Kelly Cup with the team he performed well with in 30 games the year prior.
Significant ECHL time isn’t usually a great sign for a player, but can also be the product of depth. After all, if you have skilled prospects getting next to no minutes in the long role due to having an abundance in talent, wouldn’t it make more sense to put them in a position to succeed, even if it’s in a lower league? This is particularly common with goaltenders. In fact, at one point last year, all five Leafs goalies signed to contracts (Reimer, Scrivens, Rynnas, Owuya, MacIntyre) had ECHL experience.
It’s important to have control over these players while they’re down there, and having an actual affiliate is key in that. Suddenly, a player goes from "hey, have this guy and slot him wherever" and becomes their responsibility to develop and grow. They know that the player will only go up or down, and not sideways.
In short, your end game is to have these players contributing enough to stay in the AHL, but it never hurts to have places for them to play where you have a significant say in things. The fact that that team happens to be the Greatest Hockey Team To Ever Exist (TM) is just a bonus.