By Warren Kosel
The date was June 13, 1996 and the city of Rochester was erupting in jovial celebration of the Amerks’ sixth Calder Cup championship following their thrilling 2-1 win over the Portland Pirates in dramatic Game 7 fashion in front of a standing room only crowd at the downtown War Memorial.
|WATCH: FIRST PERIOD OF GAME 7||WATCH: A LOOK BACK AT THE 1996 CALDER CUP|
|WATCH: SECOND PERIOD OF GAME 7||WATCH: BRIAN HOLZINGER'S GWG|
|WATCH: THIRD PERIOD OF GAME 7||PHOTO GALLERY|
It was a postseason to remember for the Amerks, who were 11-1 through the first three rounds of the playoffs, including back-to-back sweeps over the Adirondack Red Wings and Cornwall Aces before knocking off the Syracuse Crunch in five games. After overcoming a rather slow start through the first half of the 1995-96 regular season, Rochester, sparked by the dramatically improved goaltending of Steve Shields, came to form midseason and finished the campaign in third place in the American Hockey League’s Central Division. All in all, it was certainly a historic season for the Amerks and one that former captain Dane Jackson will never forget either.
“Game 7…,” recalls Jackson, the Amerks captain that year who summed up the best moment of his professional career in two simple words. “Winning such a tight game and the celebration with guys you go to war with and guys that sacrifice a lot that are truly team guys.”
“I don’t know if a lot of people really remember, but we were not a very good team at Christmastime, “added Jackson, who took his rightful place in the Amerks Hall of Fame during the 2012-13 season. “We had a lot of good players, but we were one of the lowest teams in the league actually at that point. We had some tough meetings as a group and we all got together. To be a part of that team and see when guys put in that much effort and all the blood, sweat and tears and to come out with a championship is something I’ll never forget. It was a great part of my life and really built a lot of who I am today.”
After the Amerks assembled a 2-0 series lead over the Pirates with a pair of home wins, the series shifted back to Portland, where the Pirates responded with a pair of home victories of their own to knot the best-of-seven-game series at two apiece. Rochester regained the series lead after Scott Nichol’s Game 5 overtime winner 4:13 into the extra session proved to be the breaking point, but a 5-1 Portland triumph in Game 6 would again even the series and set the stage for a Game 7, winner-takes-all showdown in Rochester.
“My favorite memory was winning the Calder Cup in ’96,” said Nichol. “Playing in the middle of June, wearing shorts to the rink and looking up in the stands and seeing everyone dressed the same way was special. I think we were the last team to be playing in any league and we ended up winning in Game 7. For my career, you learn a lot from those Game 7’s, and you learn how to win in big games, and it carried on throughout my career.”
Exactly 21 years ago today, with the contest tied at 1-1 early in the third period, Amerks forward Brian Holzinger broke the deadlock as he converted on his own rebound from the left face-off dot to put the Amerks on top 2-1 in what proved to be the game-winning goal. Portland goaltender Ron Tugnutt immediately left his crease to dispute the goal with referee Blaine Angus ruling that he was interfered with on the play, but Tugnutt was quickly overruled, and as they say, the rest is history. Rochester then played shutdown mode for the remaining 17:26 before a massive celebration took place on the War Memorial ice, where fans and players alike shared in the moment that is still viewed by many as one of the best in franchise history.
“It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been a champion and it’s just an unbelievable feeling,” said Dixon Ward, who scored Rochester’s first goal in the second period en route to being named the MVP in the playoffs. “It was a great game and they played so hard, but our guys were so ready to play. This is something I will remember the rest of my life.”
“Getting to Game 7 was actually a blessing since our hiccup was Game 6 when we got blown out,” added Nichol. “It made us refocus, dig in and play like we have been throughout the playoffs. Game 7 was closer on the scoreboard than on the ice. We were totally in control, especially in the third period.”
What is even more impressive about the win was Rochester’s defense, anchored by veteran blueliners Doug Houda, Terry Hollinger and Dean Melanson, held the Pirates to just a single shot in the third period on its way to outshooting Portland 37-14 in the contest. That alone proved to be the difference maker for the Amerks, who finished the Calder Cup Finals with a 3-1 record at home and outscored the Pirates 24-22 throughout the seven-game series as Rochester captured its first Calder Cup on home ice in 31 years since the Joe Crozier-led Amerks of 1965. That Amerks lineup also boasted six future Hall of Famers in the likes of Jackson (Class of 2013), Houda (Class of 2011), Scott Metcalfe (Class of 2006), the late Craig Charron (Class of 2008) and veteran forward Dan Frawley (Class of 2003), who returned from retirement and went onto play two more years in Rochester before hanging up his skates for good following the 1997-98 season. Nichol would join the prestigious club in 2017.
“I was really emotional after we won it,” said Metcalfe, the former Amerks enforcer and fan favorite after Game 7. “I’ve never won a championship before and to do it with this great bunch of guys makes it even more special. We had to battle for everything and we had our chances, but we were able to get the job done and that just shows the character of our team. We held them to 14 shots and one in the third period. That says a lot about our team,” said Metcalfe, who ranks first in franchise history with 1,424 career penalty minutes.
Despite going on to play two more seasons with the Amerks, the 1996 championship would be the last for Frawley, who was among the 11 players to appear in all 19 playoff contests that spring. But when he officially reentered retirement for good following the 1997-98 season, not even the 273 NHL games he spent with Chicago and Pittsburgh would be what he remember most about his career.
“To finally win the Calder Cup on my third trip to the Finals was special along with my mother and sister being there to watch the game. Our team was certainly not expected to be there that day with the way most of our season went, but by the time spring started we were playing great hockey and it just seemed to steamroll from there. There were so many strong teams in the history of the Rochester Americans and to be a part of one that won the Calder Cup remains a highlight of my career.”
During the regular season, Charron, in just his first season with the Amerks, would go on to produce his most offensive season in his career, collecting a team and career-high 43 goals and 95 points in 72 games en route to earning team MVP and Scoring Champion honors. He also contributed 17 points on seven goals and 10 assists in 19 playoff appearances, finishing only second in postseason scoring to Ward, who would be later named the recipient of the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP after leading the Amerks with 35 points (11+24).
Headlining the team’s rookie class was newcomer Rumun Ndur, who despite putting up just 14 points (2+12) during the regular season, quickly established himself as a dominant, stay-at-home defenseman. By season’s end, the then 20-year-old led the team with 306 penalty minutes, the most by an Amerks rookie since Rob Ray’s record-setting 446 penalty minutes during the 1988-89 campaign.
Ndur went onto to spend two more seasons in Rochester before beginning an NHL career that featured stints for the Buffalo Sabres, the New York Rangers at Atlanta Thrashers. The journeyman also had stops in the IHL, UHL and EIHL, but he admitted that nothing in his career would ever amount to winning the Calder Cup with the Amerks in 1996, especially in his first pro year.
“I remember a lot about that day,” recalled Ndur, who has been coaching a AAA team outside of London, Ontario ever since his retirement as a player following the 2009-10 season. “Barrie Moore and I were sitting around our hotel room because our rental leases had expired and we had nowhere else to stay for the Cup run. We were talking about how we were going to be the last hockey game in North America that day since we just watched the (Colorado) Avalanche win the Stanley Cup a couple nights before. I remember having a great pre-game nap and going through the whole pre-game like it was just another game. Obviously we got the right result that night and as a first-year pro it was incredible that we were in that position. I couldn't believe how close we were as a team! One of the greatest feelings of my life was lifting Calder for a lap after the win and hearing the crowd go nuts! Pretty much everything after that was a blur.”
As one career was just beginning, another, sadly, was ending. Jody Gage, who in 11 seasons became the face of the franchise while capturing the hearts of all Rochesterians, was limited to just 16 games that season due to a knee injury that would soon be the main reason from his transition as player into the front office. Gage was forced into retirement midseason and quickly took the reigns as the team’s assistant general manager, a role that would suit him well in the years that followed.
“It was a bittersweet, but an unbelievable year all the same for me,” said Gage, who also won Calder Cups with the Amerks in 1987 as well as one with the Adirondack Red Wings in 1981. “It was my final year as a player, but it allowed me to transition to the front office and have success there. The beginning of the year was tough, but winning it at the end was a great conclusion of my playing career.”
Dubbed “Mr. Amerk” during his 11-year career in Rochester, Gage finished as the Amerks’ all-time leader in goals, assists, points and games played. He holds the Amerks’ record for game-winning goals in one season (9, 1987-88) and goals/points by a right wing in one season (60/104, 1987-88). Gage is one of just three players to record 500 career AHL goals and 1,000 career AHL points, and his 17 AHL seasons tie him for third in league history. Some of his other AHL accolades include the 1987-88 AHL MVP award and a berth on the First Team All-Star squad. He also earned AHL First Team All-Star honors following the 1985-86 and 1990-91 seasons, a place on the AHL's All-Time Team in 1992 -- as chosen by the media -- and selection as the U.S. Team Captain for the AHL All-Star Game in 1995. Gage also holds AHL records for the two fastest short-handed goals in one game (8 seconds, 3/25/89), the most 40+ goal seasons (7), and the most playoff goals (51) in AHL history.
In 1999, he was inducted into the Amerks Hall of Fame. On March 19, 1999, Gage and Dick Gamble had their No. 9 retired, joining Norm “Red” Armstrong as the only players in team history to receive that honor.
Gage received one of the highest honors of his career in 2006, as he was inducted into the inaugural class of the AHL Hall of Fame. He joined legends Johnny Bower, Jack Butterfield, Fred Glover, Willie Marshall, Frank Mathers and Eddie Shore.
The celebration continued through the summer months, but nothing compared to the merriment in the days ahead as crowds gathered and lined the streets for the victory parade through downtown Rochester. The masses packed in at City Hall, where over hundreds of loyal fans witnessed then Mayor Bill Johnson present the Amerks with the key to the city and proclaim June 13 to forever be a day of remembrance and celebration in Rochester sports history.
“A lot of years I put in with the Amerks,” recalled Metcalfe. “That was my third Finals and to finally win it was something that nobody could take away from a young man. Winning was everything. To finally win one was very, very big.”
“Anytime you win a championship and go through the long, grinding season it forges a bond with your teammates,” said Nichol, who took the Amerks to one more Finals appearance in 2000 before embarking on a 662-game NHL career that featured stops in Buffalo, Calgary, Chicago, Nashville, San Jose and St. Louis. “It was a tough and a bit of a roller coaster season. We didn't have a great regular season record, but we had a great mix of rookies, veterans, skill guys to role players and 'Torts' (head coach John Tortorella) made all those players accountable. That season game me some lifelong memories and friends. I can't believe it's been 20 years!”
Rochester Americans 2, Portland Pirates 1
Game 7, 1996 Calder Cup Finals
June 13, 1996
Rochester War Memorial
POR Goal – Norm Batherson 4:08 (Richard Zednik)
Penalties – POR Andrew Brunette 7:30 (hooking), ROC Dan Frawley 7:30 (roughing), ROC Doug Houda 7:36 (hooking), POR 16:42 Stewart Malgunas (interference)
ROC Goal (PP) – Dixon Ward 11:07 (Brian Holzinger)
Penalties – POR Richard Zednik 4:49 (hooking), POR Brad Layzell 10:17 (holding), POR Brad Layzell 12:23 (tripping)
ROC Goal – Brian Holzinger 2:34 (Dixon Ward, Dean Melanson)
Portland: Ron Tugnutt (L - 37 shots, 35 saves)
Rochester: Steve Shields (W - 14 shots, 13 saves)
1. ROC – Brian Holzinger
2. ROC – Dixon Ward
3. POR – Ron Tugnutt
Referee – Blaine Angus
Linesmen – Dan Murphy & Mike Smith
1995-96 Rochester Americans: Coach John Tortorella, Curtis Brown, Craig Charron, Jason Cirone, Rob Conn, David Cooper, Scott Feasby, Dan Frawley, Terry Hollinger, Brian Holzinger, Doug Houda, Dane Jackson, Steve Junker, Sergei Klimentiev, Jamie Leach, Dean Melanson, Scott Metcalfe, Barrie Moore, Rumun Ndur, Scott Nichol, Wayne Primeau, Vaclav Varada, Dixon Ward (Playoff MVP), Bob Westerby, Shayne Wright, John Blue (G), Steve Shields (G)