It is hard to picture a Cornell men’s hockey game without the six-foot-flat Mitch Gillam leading the team onto the ice and standing in the crease come puck drop.
The Peterborough, Ontario, native has been a staple of the program throughout his three years starting in Ithaca, but the team’s loss to UMass Lowell signals the end of Gilliam’s time in a carnelian and white jersey, and thus a new direction for the team in net and for Gillam in a career.
At least for for Gillam, that new direction was made clear Tuesday, when the Orlando Solar Bears — the ECHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs — announced the senior had been signed to a amateur tryout contract for the remainder of the 2016-17 season.
His eligibility begins as soon as Tuesday night, when the Solar Bears take the Adirondack Thunder in Glen Falls, N.Y.
“I feel young again, which is nice,” Gillam told The Sun. “Super exciting to continue my hockey career and pal in the ECHL on an ATO for the Solar Bears, who are a great organization and are affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs so who knows.”
Gillam’s play at Cornell began his freshman season, where he appeared in two games. His debut came Nov. 26 that season, where he notched a 24-save victory, and also added the first goal by a Cornell goalie on empty net — a moment that lives in Cornell hockey infamy and foreshadowed of the excitement he was to bring.
He leaves college hockey with the most points among goalies with a total of five — the one goal and four assists.
“I could have had a couple more assists if some guys got a few more goals on the breakaway,” Gillam joked. “But it was a great experience and the guys helped me defensively as well so can’t thank them enough.”
Over the course of his final three years, as Gillam earned the starting role each campaign, he guided the Red to 46 wins, 25 of which came this past senior season. He was a key part in guiding Cornell back to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012.
Gillam departs from Cornell with a career record of 47-28-17, goals against average of 2.15 and save percentage of .918. His 11 shutouts are the fourth-most in program history. He owns the third-longest shutout streak in regards to minutes in program history, a 213:17 span over the course of four games during his junior season.
“Having [Andy Illes ’14] as a mentor really pushed me to become a starter in the league,” Gillam said. “The last couple years I’ve been able to establish myself as a solid goaltender in the league and hopefully I can keep going up the ranks in each league I play in and for each organization I play for, and hopefully get to the top one day.”
The netminder is the second of his class to sign with a professional organization, as Patrick McCarron signed an AHL contract with the Detroit Red Wings’ organization earlier Tuesday morning.
Gillam enters the Solar Bears’ roster at a time when the team holds only a single goalie on its roster — Ryan Massa, a University of Nebraska Omaha product.
Gillam and Massa faced off once before in game one of two-games series at Lynah in 2014. The matchup ended in a 1-1 tie with Gillam making 38 saves and Massa 29. Massa faced off against current Cornell junior goalie Hayden Stewart in game two, making 32 saves en route to a 2-1 win for the Mavericks.
The Solar Bears also tout two former ECAC foes of Gillam, former RPI Engineers Chris Bradley and Milos Bubela. Gillam has faced off against the two several times throughout his collegiate career, and Bradley has two goals on the Cornellian, while Bubela has added three assists.
Bubela assisted Bradley on the second RPI goal of a 3-3 tie with Cornell in a 2016 contest at Lynah.
“As soon as I walked in with my Cornell gear a bunch of them came over to me and said we played against each other and as soon as they introduced themselves I kind of recognized them as a player,” Gillam said. “There isn’t really any head butting or anything like that. They’ve been great and welcoming me with open arms and have just been a great organization overall.”
Other former collegiate athletes on the Solar Bears hail from Providence, Minnesota-Duluth, Ohio St., and UNH, among others.
The Solar Bears currently sit at third in the South Division with a 34-23-6-3 record, currently in the midst of a playoff race with the regular season ending April 8.