What do Rochester billionaire-cum-gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano, the Michigan State hockey team and a Czech police officer have in common? The answer is none other than the Rochester Americans, Rochester’s American Hockey League franchise affiliated with the Buffalo Sabres.
The Americans, or Amerks as they are affectionately referred to by fans, is one of the most storied franchises in professional hockey, older than 24 of the 30 current NHL teams and has made playoff appearances for 13 consecutive seasons. The Amerks enter this past week, however not only as the only winless team in the AHL, but the sole professional hockey team on the North American continent, encompassing six leagues and 121 pro teams, with a zero in the win column?
Of course there isn’t a simple answer to this question, but some insight can be gained by looking at the current situation of the parent club, the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres are currently being operated by the NHL as a result of the arrest in June of owner John Rigas on counts of securities, wire and bank fraud. Faced with considerable financial woes, the NHL made a decision to keep Buffalo afloat as a competitively viable franchise, even if it meant the end of farm team Rochester’s glory days in the AHL. Meanwhile, as Buffalo sinks to the bottom of the NHL standings, Rochester hockey fans are worried that as soon as an Amerk finds his touch he will be whisked away to the Sabres. With a bare bones budget the Amerks scraped together a motley crew of rookies and veterans that have taken to the ice so far this season with considerably less success than was hoped for at the start of the season.
The Amerks are ballasted by rookie goalie Ryan Miller, the whiz-kid from East Lansing who led his Michigan State Spartans to victory while shattering NCAA records along the way, also finding time to become only the second goalie in history to win the prestigious Hoby Baker Trophy given to college hockey’s most valuable player. Foregoing his senior year of college, Miller decided to turn pro and was signed by the Buffalo Sabres. His performance at the pro level has been nothing short of outstanding. I was able to catch up with Miller and ask him what it is like to be playing pro hockey when this time last year he was playing at Michigan State. “I have a lot of time on my hands,” said Miller, also adding that “I’m hoping to fill that time with some classes. I’m only 19 credits away from a business degree.” Who knows, maybe we’ll see Miller on campus sometime soon.
Another hot prospect on the Amerks roster is Jiri Novodny, the 19-year old son of a Czech police officer who arrived in upstate New York after a successful stint on the Czech Republic national team. Novodny is facing the challenge of adjusting to a new culture, new language and new surroundings ? a daunting task for someone younger than most of the CT’s readers.
Novodny and Miller are joined by fellow rookies Sean McMurrow, a tough-as-nails defenseman who currently leads the AHL in fights and penalty minutes, and Jason Pominville, a winger with great precision and skill. Another notable face on the bench is that of Denis Hamel, an NHL veteran recently demoted to the Amerks and who has been looking to return to the prime-time lights of Buffalo’s HSBC Arena.
The woes of the Amerks were exemplified Monday afternoon when the Norfolk Admirals sailed into town, an appropriate opponent for the Veteran’s Day contest. The Amerks were plagued by frequent miscues on the ice and missed opportunities on goal while the visiting Admirals were quick to capitalize on Rochester’s frequent penalties. Things were tied 2-2 towards the close of the second period but Norfolk took the lead as Igor Radulov sneaked the puck into the goal with assists from Peter White and Mike Peluso. The Amerks had a chance to tie things up again with less than two minutes remaining in the final period with a huge breakaway by left-wing Jason Botterill but was tripped up in the crease by an opposing defenseman. The Admirals were not called for a penalty, resulting in a fusillade of boos and jeers from the crowd. The Admirals scored their fourth goal of the day in the last 30 seconds of play as the puck sailed into Rochester’s empty net, the goalie having been pulled in a last ditch effort to catch up with Norfolk.
There are some fans who say that Rochester’s dog-days will end only if Tom Golisano, who has expressed interest in buying the Sabres organization, revitalizes the team with fresh capital to bring in talented and experienced players. Others say that it is just a matter of time before things turn around for the Amerks. Either way, Golisano, Ryan Miller’s buddies from Michigan State and that Czechoslovakian police officer will be keeping their eyes on the Rochester Americans, win, lose or draw.