Hockey’s Solar Bears are back. For fans with fond memories of the original team, it’s like they never left.
By Peter Kerasotis
It felt like opening a book that had been shut for years, brushing away the dust, rereading the last few pages from where the bookmark lay, just to get up to speed, and then diving back into the delicious narrative. The story never ended for the Solar Bears; the final chapter was never read. It was merely an interruption. The puck didn't really stop. Not here.
This is what Bob Ohrablo was hoping—banking on, really—when he and two partners, Jason Siegel and Joe Haleski, went where they had never gone before, into sports franchise ownership. And while they loved hockey, there was no particular relationship with Orlando, other than what they remembered about the Solar Bears, a minor league team that once upon a time thrived in the International Hockey League. But when the league folded in 2001, and the Solar Bears along with it, it ended a fun and frenetic fan-fueled run of success that had begun in 1995. Ohrablo likes to say the Solar Bears merely went into hibernation. In fact, he likes saying it so much that he and his partners made “Out of hibernation’’ a marketing slogan.
It was back in the '90s when Ohrablo worked in the front office with the IHL's Phoenix Roadrunners, and it didn't take him long to figure out what the whole league noticed. "I saw it from the outside looking in," he says. "I saw the fan excitement with the Solar Bears. It was one of the strongest, if not the strongest, team in the IHL. Orlando was the first location we looked at when we looked into hockey ownership. And the first thing we looked into is if we could bring the Solar Bears back."
The original Solar Bears were owned by Rich DeVos and were part of what was then a growing empire of DeVos sports properties, which also included the NBA's Orlando Magic, the WNBA's Orlando Miracle and the RDV Sportsplex. So when Ohrablo and his partners wanted to bring hockey back to Orlando, they went to its original owners, meeting with Magic CEO Alex Martins, asking for the name, the colors, the logo ... everything. "Alex was great," Ohrablo says. "It took about 10 minutes. We got everything we needed. To do this without the Solar Bears name, I didn't think it made sense."
But if they built the franchise back—with the same Solar Bears name, same early '90s-style colors of purple, green, orange and gold, and the same logo, only slightly tweaked—would the fans come? Answer: It was as if they never left.
When news spread that the Solar Bears were returning 11 years after winning the IHL championship in their last season, with this incarnation competing in the East Coast Hockey League, jerseys began reappearing all over Central Florida. Players, most of whom were just kids when the Solar Bears last played a game, were taken aback.
After signing, Simon Danis-Pepin, a former NHL draft pick, made the long drive from his home in Montreal to Orlando in preparation for this return season. "When I was driving through the South, through states like Georgia, I saw absolutely no signs of hockey. Then I got to Orlando and I'm seeing Solar Bears jerseys everywhere. I could tell right away that there was excitement here to see hockey coming back. The following here is amazing,’’ says Danis-Pepin, who has since been traded to another ECHL team, the San Francisco Bulls.
Head coach Drake Berehowsky, who played 13 years in the NHL, has had people ask him at gas stations and even at traffic lights about his Ontario, Canada, license plate. "People will ask me what I'm doing here, and I'll tell them I'm here for work. They'll ask me what kind of work I do, and I'll tell them I'm the head coach of the Solar Bears. And then they get excited. They tell me, 'We love the Solar Bears!' "
Berehowsky, though, isn't totally surprised at the reaction. Before his NHL career, he played in the old IHL, and against the Solar Bears. "If you were in the IHL, Orlando was the place to be," he says. "The sunshine. The way the fans came out and supported the team. Everybody knew how special it was here. The whole league knew. There were maybe two or three other teams you'd want to play for, but number one was the Solar Bears."
Orlando resident Jimm Witherell knows something about being number one. He was the first season ticket holder with the original Solar Bears, a distinction he wears as proudly as his No. 17 Craig Fisher game-worn jersey from back in the day, which he was sporting at the new Solar Bears’ home opener on Oct. 20. Witherell, 55, is once again a season– ticket holder. The Solar Bears have 4,000 of them, which helped the team sell out its home opener, when 9,555 raucous fans filled the lower bowl of the Amway Center. Fans chanted "Let's Go Bears!" banged on the rinkside plexiglass during crucial moments and roared when the home team beat the Florida Everblades, 4-3, in overtime, thanks to a 12-round shootout punctuated by Sean Lorenz's game-winning goal.
Afterward, Lorenz talked about the adrenaline rush the fans gave the team, saying, "We heard they were extremely passionate, but I don't know that we were expecting this. It really got loud."
Amid the din, Witherell and four of his buddies celebrated, and not just a Solar Bears home-opening victory, but what was now the final validation of the franchise's long–overdue return to Orlando.
"It's a very similar feeling," he says, recalling that at the inaugural home opener in 1995 at the old Amway Arena, it took a while for fans to get into rhythm, and perhaps even up to speed. And not just the fans, but also security personnel. Witherell recalled how the first time the Solar Bears scored a hat trick—three goals by one player—fans did what hockey fans traditionally do. They threw their hats onto the ice. Problem was, security started to escort those fans out of the arena. "We were like, 'No, no! That's what we do in hockey! It's tradition!’ "
It took a little time to educate everyone, just like it took a while at this season's home opener. It was sort of like riding a bike. You don't forget, but you still need some time to get going before it feels comfortable.
"It's been 11 years," Witherell says. "So it all didn't come back right away. It was gradual. It was like, 'Okay this is when we stand up, this is when we anticipate something is about to happen, this is when we get loud.' Pretty soon, it was just awesome, like the Solar Bears never left."
‘Orlando was the first location we looked at when we looked into hockey ownership. And the first thing we looked into is if we could bring the Solar Bears back.’
—Bob Ohrablo, Solar Bears managing partner and COO