The UCF ice hockey team will be making history when it hits the ice at Amway Center Saturday night against South Carolina, taking part in the first-ever college-hockey game inside the arena.
The East Coast Hockey League’s Orlando Solar Bears will face off against the Florida Everblades at 7 p.m., and UCF (8-6-1) will play a regular-season game approximately 30 minutes after the conclusion of Orlando’s game.
“Growing up as a hockey player, you always dream about playing on the big rink. I’m really excited for that. I think all the guys are excited,” said UCF senior forward Jacob Solomon, who is second on the team in points with 10 goals and nine assists in 15 games. “[We] can’t thank them enough for this opportunity they’re giving us to kind of promote our team and bring some more hockey into Central Florida.”
Solomon, a co-captain, has had opportunities to play in a packed stadium like Amway before. When he was younger, he played in the Florida Panthers’ BB&T Center twice during the intermissions, once for a high school game and another time for an adult-league game. He also refereed a game in the NHL arena.
Co-captain Eric Knoppel has also had the chance to play in BB&T and a few other large rinks, but he is excited to play in front of UCF fans while generating exposure for both the Knights and Solar Bears.
“It’s a win-win [for] people from UCF that maybe didn’t know about the Solar Bears. Now the word’s getting out, it could possibly bring in some more people for them,” said Knoppel, a defenseman who has five goals and nine assists this season. “They’re trying to help us out, and they know that if we get the right support and the right uplift, then eventually who knows what UCF hockey could become.”
The partnership the Knights have assembled with the Solar Bears began during the 2012-13 season, when the Bears made a comeback to Orlando, and has transformed into a lasting relationship.
“The hockey community is a pretty tight-knit community,” said Solar Bears’ head coach Anthony Noreen, who is in his first year with the team. “If you ask any player [or] coach that’s made it far in the game, there’s countless people that’ve helped them out along the way and done it selflessly, not done it because there was anything they were getting out of it.
“We saw a chance to help out another hockey team in the area, and it felt like it was definitely a place we would like to be of assistance.”
During many previous Solar Bears’ games, UCF has done chuck-a-puck fundraisers, where fans can purchase a foam hockey puck and try to throw it in a bin located on the center of the ice during an intermission.
The UCF ice hockey team also volunteered last season when the Solar Bears hosted the ECHL All-Star Game on Jan. 21. It was the first such event since 1998, when they used to play in the now-defunct International Hockey League.
The Knights helped with the setup of the event and various things that the crew needed a helping hand with, including the outdoor block party the Solar Bears hosted in the days prior to the game.
“Things like that, we’ve been able to maintain a good relationship with them over the years,” Solomon said. “They are very aware of our team being just so close in proximity.”
All fans attending the Solar Bears’ game will also receive free entry into the Knights’ game, and tickets begin at $13 each. If fans don’t attend the first game, UCF students with a valid ID may gain free entry into UCF’s game, but others must pay $10 at the gate.
“I want these guys to be able to look back four or five years from now, 10 years from now and say, ‘Hey, that was a great experience, and we had a lot of fun doing it,’” said UCF ice hockey head coach Sean Weaver, who is his 17th season with the Knights. “I think it’s a great experience. The guys kind of feel like they’re pros.”
Jarrod Heil is the Sports Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @JarrodHeil or email him at JarrodH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.