Matt Carkner excited for challenge
The opening lines of a new chapter for the Orlando Solar Bears were written on Tuesday.
Matt Carkner was formally introduced to local media as the fifth head coach in team history, and in doing so helped offer a glimpse at what lies ahead as the club enters its second decade of existence.
Though Carkner made his name as a rugged, hard-nosed defenseman over a 15-year playing career that included 237 games in the National Hockey League, Orlando’s new bench boss intends for his players to compete with pace and offensive flair.
“I want them to be fast, I want them to be skilled, gritty, edgy; I want them to be creative - they’re going to be a creative group in the offensive zone, but they’re definitely going to buy into the team system and the team philosophy,” said Carkner. “It’s going to be structured, but with some skill in there. Obviously I’ve got to get those players to make that that happen, but it’s going to be entertaining hockey, for sure.”
Carkner, who serves in the dual role as general manager, will be tasked with roster construction in addition to setting the team’s on-ice direction. It is the first time the 41-year-old will oversee the hockey operations of a professional team, a new opportunity that he has earnestly embraced. With the team’s 20-man Season-Ending Roster out and the ECHL signing period officially opening last week, Carkner has already begun laying the groundwork to build a team that will hit the ice at the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den for training camp in October. He’s already had discussions with a handful of players from last season’s squad, and they have begun to put pen to paper for a return.
“This is a different animal,” Carkner acknowledged. “I’ve got a lot of support from [Solar Bears president Chris Heller] and the staff here, and we’ve been navigating that well so far. It's been a lot of fun signing some contracts and getting the work done, creating new networks, new relationships and talking to a lot of players and former teammates and players just to get a feel for for who's out there [in free agency] - a lot of these guys, they they hear about Orlando and they're excited - they think this is a great spot to play.”
As the ECHL affiliate to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, the Solar Bears will likely serve as a landing spot for a handful of young players within the Lightning pipeline over the course of the season who are either under contract to Tampa Bay directly or through its American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse. As players come and go, it will be imperative for Carkner to maintain a consistent message and provide stability.
“You have to have your plan in place - you have to have your reserves, you have to have a good network that you can call out to and make sure those changes are as seamless as possible,” Carkner said. “It’s going to be great getting a bunch of players down who can really boost your lineup, but it’s [important] to keep yourself on an even keel understanding that the core group we’re going to have are going to weather those storms and keep guys going in the right direction, so that any of the change on the outside is just a little change; it’s not going to turn the ship upside-down.”
Heller, entering his seventh season as team president and 11th season in total with the organization, is confident that the Solar Bears got their man.
“Matt checked all of the boxes: his presence, his character, his work ethic,” Heller said. “Sometimes, when you know, you know. When Matt came down and we met for the better part of a day and spent numerous hours on phone calls back and forth, it just felt right. We feel that he has the right temperament, experience and work ethic to get us pointed in the right direction.”
While the first game of the 2022-23 season is still several months away, the optimism surrounding Tuesday’s proceedings offered the hope that even better days lie ahead for the Carkner-led Solar Bears, especially when the man at the center of it all has hit the ground running with enthusiasm.
“It’s going to be a learning process,” said Carkner. “I am new to this and I was clear with that with Chris during the interview process that this is one thing I’m new to, but for me I’ve always worked for what I’ve earned, and and it’s going to be no different this way.”