In addition to the arrival of the Solar Bears, other changes in league membership saw the Denver Grizzlies relocate to Salt Lake City as the Utah Grizzlies, having been displaced by the arrival to Denver of the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL. Additionally, the San Diego Gulls moved north to become the Long Beach Ice Dogs.
The Solar Bears were an immediate success on the ice, as they won the Central Division with 110 points, third best in the league thanks to a 52-24-6 record. They were led in scoring by Craig Fisher, who had a league leading 74 goals, 18 more than anyone other player, and 130 points, which was second in the IHL scoring race. Mark Beaufait was second on the club with 109 points, good for fifth in the league, while Dave Barr was ninth with 100. Former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Allan Bester was a workhorse in goal, playing in 51 games with a 32-16-2 record while also finding the time to play in 10 games with the Dallas Stars of the NHL.
There, they met the Houston Aeros. After the teams split the first two games in Houston, the Aeros put the Solar Bears on the brink by winning the first two games back in Orlando. The Solar Bears fought back with an overtime win at home in Game 5 and forced a Game 7 with a 3-2 victory back in Houston, but fell short 5-3 in the deciding Game 7.
The Solar Bears 47-23-12 record was good for fourth in the league with 106 points in the Eastern Division. Once again, Beaufait was the team leader in all three offensive statistical categories with 28 goals and 50 assists for 78 points. Another Latvian, Herbert Vasiljevs was second with 25 goals and 60 points.
The goaltending was a literal revolving door, as no less than eight different players donned the pads for the Solar Bears! Scott Langkow saw the most action, but that was with just 27 games. Rick Tabaracci was the only other player over 20 with 21, while Corey Schwab had 16. While none of the other five goalies reached 10 games, each one played at least twice and none of the eight had a losing record. The "big three" were a combined 34-18-8 and the remaining five contributed to an excellent 13-5-4 mark as a group.
Their playoff season was an abbreviated one, as they fell in six games to the Cyclones.
By now the IHL was reeling, and two more clubs fell by the wayside for the 2000-01 season, bringing the league down to now 11 teams. Long Beach left for the West Coast Hockey League while the Michigan K-Wings (formerly the Kalamazoo Wings) folded due to the loss of their affiliation with the NHL's Dallas Stars and concerns over larger market teams entering the league.
For the sixth consecutive season, the Solar Bears finished the season with a winning record. They won 47 games, lost 28 and had 7 shootout losses for 101 points, second overall in "The I".
It should come as no surprise that Beaufait lead Orlando in scoring for the sixth consecutive season, as he was tops in goals (23), assists (42) and points with 65. J. P. Vigier equaled Beaufait's 23 goals. While six goaltenders suited up for the Solar Bears, Norm Maracle was the clear number one with 51 games played and a 33-13-3 record.
Cincinnati was the first to fall in the playoffs to Orlando, 4 games to 1. The Solar Bears got out to a 3-0 lead over Grand Rapids before eventually winning in six games to advance to the Turner Cup Finals against the Chicago Wolves. Orlando dominated at home, winning the first two games 7-2 and 5-1. The Wolves took Game 3 in Chicago 3-1 before Orlando took charge with a 2-1 win in overtime of Game 4. Back in Orlando, the Solar Bears won the Turner Cup with a 5-1 victory in front of their home fans one final time in what would be the last IHL game ever played.
The IHL had been moving into major markets, including those which already had NHL teams, such as Chicago, Detroit and Long Beach, near Los Angeles. In response, many NHL teams switched their affiliations to teams in the American Hockey League, reducing the number of affiliated IHL teams to just four in 1997-98. The loss of subsidized player salaries, high expansion costs and greatly increased travel costs were too much for the IHL, which ceased operations after the 2000-01 season.
Six teams, the Chicago, Grand Rapids, Houston, Utah, the Milwaukee Admirals and Manitoba were granted admittance into the AHL, while Cincinnati joined the ECHL. Unfortunately for the fans of the Solar Bears and the Kansas City Blades, owner Rich DeVos owned three clubs, Orlando, Kansas City and Grand Rapids. Rules would only allow DeVos to own one club in the AHL, which was was chosen to be Grand Rapids. In addition to the Solar Bears and the Blades, Cleveland and Detroit also ceased operations when the IHL folded.
Despite their success on the ice, Orlando never drew very well and trended downward each and every season. They averaged 10,460 in 1995-96 and two seasons later they were down to 7,219. The Solar Bears dropped into the 6,000's for 1998-99 and 1999-00 before a plummet in 2000-01 to 5,156, which was less than half of their inaugural season average. By comparison, after a peak of 7,285 in 1991-92, the DeVos' Blades were down to 5,235 in 2000-01 while his surviving Griffins averaged 8,022 and were just two seasons removed from three consecutive at over 10,000.
It should come as no surprise that Beaufait was the Solar Bears all-time leading scorer with 159 goals and 340 assists for 499 points, far outdistancing Todd Richards' 260 and McDonough at 231, the only three players over 200 while with Orlando.
When the Solar Bears folded after the 2000-01 season, Beaufait played one year in the AHL before moving to Germany to play seven seasons with the Berlin Polar Bears, which seemed entirely appropriate for someone who had played six seasons with the Solar Bears.
Fisher retained his records for Most Goals in a Season (74) and Most Points in a Season (130), while Beaufait was tops in single season assists with 79. Barry Dreger set the team record for Most Penalty Minutes in a Season with 387 while Bester set the goaltending mark for Most Wins in a Season with 37 in 1996-97.
Orlando finished with a 286-162-44 franchise record, with at least 42 victories in each of their seven winning seasons.
Today's featured jersey is a 1995-96 Orlando Solar Bears Allan Bester jersey as worn during the Solar Bears inaugural season by the team's original number one goaltender. With it's purple, black and teal color scheme, this jersey could not be more representative of the trendy colors of the 1990's which look terribly dated today.
Not only is the name on the back italicized, but be sure to note a rare feature of names on the back of pro or college sports jerseys - seldom seen lower case letters!
Today's video looks back at the 2001 Turner Cup champions, the Orlando Solar Bears, who went out in style, winning the title in their final game ever.