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Sabres University

Remember the Rochester Americans?

For decades the Rochester Americans were the top AHL affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. Our prospects won Calder Cups there. Our players spent the lockout there. The franchise marketed tickets and jerseys and merchandise across the geographic footprint that is Upstate New York. Callups? No problem. A player could be here within an hour if need be.

Incredibly, and explicably, the relationship went south. And it seemed that the separation, which led to the eventual divorce, was coming through some incredibly boneheaded and shortsighted decisions from the former Amerks ownership. A dual affiliation arrangement with the Florida Panthers was cobbled together, with former owners boldly stating, “We like the Sabres, but we love the Panthers.”

The relationship got frostier and frostier, the Amerks leaning more towards the Panthers, and finally, in June 2008, the Sabres announced a new affiliation agreement with the Portland Pirates, ending months of speculation as to where the team would send its farmhands.

The Amerks accused former Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn of all sorts of shenanigans—of failing to offer more than a dozen players for the minor league roster, and engaging in predatory politics, including pitting ownership against the Rochester municipal leadership.

On the ice, it was a train wreck. Three coaches in four years, three hideous seasons, and just one playoff appearance, in 2010, a first series loss to Abbotsford. Fans abandoned the team in droves, attendance nosedived, the franchise was hemorrhaging money. The unthinkable was started to be whispered in hockey circles, that the Rochester Americans, one of the flagship and historic franchises of the American Hockey League, might be sold, relocated, or folded.

Enter Terry Pegula.

Immediately upon taking ownership of the Buffalo Sabres, Pegula questioned why it was that the Sabres minor league affiliate was located hundreds of miles away, and what happened between the strong and tenured association between Buffalo and Rochester.

It didn’t take long. In late June the Sabres announced that they were purchasing the Rochester Americans, lock, stock, and barrel. The Sabres came up with a purchase price neighboring $5 million, plus an undisclosed amount to sever the contract with the Portland Pirates.

And Sabres University was born.

The Amerks immediately made a splash with the fans, offering $10-a-seat season tickets, anywhere in the building. They hired Ron Rolston, a career Division 1 college hockey guy, as their next head coach. They promised a stocked pantry of eager prospects and blue chip players.

So how has it all worked out? Well, the good news is that attendance has climbed. The Amerks have drawn an average of more than 5,300 patrons through 21 home dates. The team has freshened up the arena, which had already undergone massive renovations over a decade ago, by adding new point-of-sale locations, bar areas, cleaning up their championship banners, adding a tabletop viewing area in one end zone, and adding a well appointed Hall of Fame display in their pavilion.

On the ice, the team is in the hunt for a playoff spot as of early February, something Rochester fans have not been used to in recent seasons. But of course, the horrific run of injuries that the Sabres have encountered this season has meant that the Rochester roster has been raided to keep the parent club fully stocked. Guys like Zack Kassian, Brayden McNabb, T. J. Brennan, Paul Szczechura, Luke Adam, and Corey Tropp, among others, have seen significant time with the Sabres. So what does the farm team do? Among other things, they sign 25-day contracts with free agents or independent players to fill the roster. Hello, Igor Gongalsky and Evan Rankin.

Drew McIntyre and David Leggio share the netminding duties for the Amerks, Leggio, of course, a Williamsville native.

With the Rochester Americans firmly under the Sabres ownership umbrella, things look bright for this partnership which has stood the test of time. Go to Blue Cross Arena on any given night, and many kids and adults are wearing Sabres jerseys and gear, cheering on coach and “professor” Ron Rolston, assistant coach and former Sabre Jay McKee, as the Amerks make a run for AHL supremacy, the Calder Cup.

Taro Sez...

• Props and thanks to the Buffalo Sabres for their special red carpet treatment for the visiting group of 65 or so Adler Mannheim fans from Mannheim, Germany. Their trip was reported first here in Artvoice and updated online at Artvoice Daily. The fans were treated to a scoreboard tribute and welcome message, in German, from their hero Jochen Hecht. Then an invite to participate on the rope line outside the dressing room between periods. Finally, a meet-and-greet after last Wednesday’s game with Mannheim natives Hecht and the Bruins’ Dennis Seidenberg. Sabres management and all those involved in the community should be proud of the way we all stepped up to make some special visitors feel welcome. That’s why we’re the City of Good Neighbors!

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