As has been the case for the past three training camps under Drake Berehowsky, the team’s locker room at the RDV Sportsplex this year is significantly packed.
For Berehowsky, this is the way Orlando’s bench boss prefers it, opting for a competitive camp where the tone reflects that nobody’s spot on the opening night roster is guaranteed.
Still, with the ever-changing nature of rosters in the ECHL, it’s important to note that the team has 11 players under contract from last season’s squad, and the hope is that number will be complimented with the addition of several players via the Tampa Bay Lightning and Syracuse Crunch who had played for the Solar Bears the previous year.
That unusual level of consistency - at least to start the season - has Berehowsky pleased with what he’s seen so far following the first on-ice session of training camp on Monday.
“I thought it was a great first day. Both groups came out competed hard, and played with the level of pace that I want to see for a first day of camp,” Berehowsky said.
Due to the large roster and a desire to ensure a more detailed level of instruction and evaluation during on-ice sessions, the roster is broken up into two groups which will compete against each other during Thursday’s Purple vs. Orange scrimmage.
LeBlanc’s team to lead
Chris LeBlanc enters his fourth season of pro hockey with the Solar Bears after inheriting the captaincy midway through the 2019-20 following the trade of Mike Monfredo.
With 173 games for Orlando under his belt, LeBlanc - the longest-tenured forward in team history - is now one of the elder statesmen in the locker room. The former Ottawa Senators draft pick prefers to lead by example, as he has often been relied upon by the coaching staff to be deployed in virtually every scenario.
“This season is going to be huge for him. He knows how I like things and he knows our systems,” Berehowsky said. “He took a tremendous step in his development last year. I think he’s still got a great future. I think when the AHL gets going again, he’ll have a chance for some of those clubs to take notice of him.”
There is a mutual level of respect from the player for his coach as well.
“Drake’s been an awesome guy from day one for me. He has a great hockey mind and really knows how to connect with his players,” LeBlanc said. “I’ve had nothing but positive experiences playing under him as a coach and through getting to know him as a person.”
There will be some challenges this season for LeBlanc, such as the absence of Trevor Olson (retirement) and Michael Brodzinski (suspended after not reporting for camp), who were originally expected to be big pieces of the returning leadership group for 2020-21.
“‘Oly’ and ‘Brodzy’ were character guys and had a tremendous impact on the locker room, and their presence is going to be missed in the locker room,” LeBlanc said. “But every guy brings something unique to the team. It’s a new season and I expect new leaders to emerge and create their own impact to help this team win games.”
After being a part of the first two teams in Solar Bears history to advance to the second round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs in his rookie and sophomore seasons, and seeing the playoff chase come to an abrupt and unexpected end in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic, LeBlanc is determined to help take the club to never-before-seen heights. He’s been a part of some talented rosters before, and playing in the always-competitive South Division has given him a good sense of perspective. He likes what he sees so far in camp.
“We’ve had some great teams in the past and just haven’t seemed to be able to get over that hump in the playoffs,” LeBlanc said. “We’re trending in the right direction. I’m excited for a fresh start this season.”
Luchuk hoping to shatter expectations
Forward Aaron Luchuk signed with the Solar Bears earlier in November, and the high-scoring forward is eager to compete in what looks to be a very tough South Division this year after spending the first two seasons of his ECHL tenure in the North Division.
“I would say it was a really good day, everything was good and organized with the Covid protocols, and it felt great to be back on the ice and getting started with this group,” Luchuk said. “It seems to be a really good group of guys here, everyone has been awesome with me and I’m excited to get the season started.”
Luchuk put an exclamation mark on the opening day of camp near the end of the first on-ice session, when he unleashed a one-timer that whizzed over the crossbar and shattered the pane of glass directly behind the net, leaving a gaping hole in the pane and forcing a slightly premature end to the first session while the RDV Ice Den maintenance crew swept up the shards of glass.
“Now I just need to work on hitting the net instead,” Luchuk joked.
That shouldn’t be too hard for Luchuk, who has potted 29 goals through 78 career ECHL games.
Rookie goaltender Michael Lackey, who happened to be stretching at the side of the net when Luchuk broke the glass, is probably glad that he’s on the same team as Luchuk and not going to be facing his shot in game situations.
“My immediate thought was, ‘I’m glad I wasn’t in the net for that!’” Lackey said.
Windsor looks to repeat winning ways
What a difference a year makes.
Last fall, Clint Windsor was the odd-man out in training camp after a number of NHL and AHL-contracted goaltenders were loaned to Orlando and forced Drake Berehowsky to cut Windsor, who had shown tremendous promise in eight appearances in 2018-19. But within weeks of the season getting underway, and the entrenched goaltenders getting called up and re-assigned elsewhere, Windsor received a call on his 26th birthday from Berehowsky asking him if he’d be interested in returning to Orlando. The move paid off, as Windsor went on to finish fourth in the ECHL with a save percentage of .927.
“One thing I always did was I always believed myself - I worked hard and waited for the opportunity,” Windsor said. “I took the ball there and ran with it.”
After his stellar rookie season for Orlando was cut short in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Windsor signed a two-year AHL pact with the Syracuse Crunch that spring with the hope that the AHL would return to finish the 2019-20 campaign. Those hopes were ultimately dashed in the summer, and while the Crunch along with the rest of the AHL awaits a targeted Feb. 5 start date for 2020-21, Windsor is quite happy to be back in Orlando.
“It’s a unique time, but obviously I’m happy to have the opportunity and start the year in Orlando and win some games,” Windsor said. “I’ve been fortunate to earn that contract, but I want to keep working to get to that next level.”
His coach, who recruited him to the Solar Bears midway through the 2018-19 season and has been a firsthand witness to much of his pro success, is equally enthused.
“I think it’s awesome to have Clint back,” Berehowsky said. “Any time you can get a goalie of his caliber, it gives our team confidence and allows the team to play a certain way. When he steps on the ice he’s a competitor, and he’s capable of stealing some games for us.”