All good things must eventually come to an end – even for the Rochester Americans.
Despite a whirlwind season and a miraculous late-season charge to even clinch a playoff position, players and coaches of the Amerks found themselves back at the arena not for another day of practice, but for end-of-season meetings and farewells.
When the Amerks dropped Game 5 in the best-of-five series last weekend against the Chicago Wolves, even with all the team had been through over the course of the season, it was all just part of the past; a past that included a trip to Switzerland for the Spengler Cup, an outdoor game hosted at Frontier Field and a Calder Cup Playoff berth that nearly wasn’t.
“It was quite a journey, and I think it says a lot about our players the way they stuck with it,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “It was a difficult year in a lot of ways with all the turnover and everything we went through. We certainly didn’t realize all of our goals, but we made some really good strides this year. We’re not satisfied with where we ended up, but I’m proud of the way the guys persisted throughout the year.”
Persisted is an understatement. Through a rash of injuries and call-ups to the parent Buffalo Sabres, the Amerks endured a nine-game losing streak through late-March that nearly catapulted their season to the history books. A 7-2-0-1 streak to end the year culminated in another trip to the playoffs for the Amerks, and while it still stings days after the season comes to a close, this particular bunch accomplished a feat that seemed far-fetched at the beginning of April.
“We made a commitment to our players and we met with our leadership group early in the year, and we told them we wanted to make the rink an enjoyable place to come every day no matter whether you win five in a row or lose five in a row,” Cassidy said. “Now we didn’t envision losing nine in a row, but we want to stick with that. Our job is to keep getting better every day, and if you follow your plan, follow your process, the plans take care of themselves.
“During that time we weren’t good enough to win. We were still learning what it would take to be good enough to win because all of the roster moves we had. As long as we felt we were moving in the right direction and guys were giving us what they had, we weren’t going to lose our cool.”
Once the Amerks did learn what it takes to win, the late-season push became the “best time of the year”, according to defenseman Mark Pysyk.
“Being on a winning streak like that was a blast,” Pysyk said. “We knew we had the right guys in the lineup, and we knew that we could do it. We just came together because nobody wanted to go home right at the end of the season, so we made it happen.”
Now, after a playoff defeat, players will go their separate ways as it slowly creeps in that this specific Amerks team won’t be taking the ice again together.
“Guys are from all over the globe and guys are leaving,” said Phil Varone, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season. “It will be the last time you see them and play with them. Obviously you keep in touch, especially with the group of guys here. It’s tough watching your bags get packed after going one day in the middle of a tough playoff battle to the next day where you don’t know what to do with your life until you start working out. It’s bittersweet.”
That sad sentiment doesn’t just exist with the players, but the coaching staff as well. From the head coach’s perspective, it is even more difficult to say goodbye.
“I thought we had a really good group here this year, a really tight group,” Cassidy said. “You know you’re saying goodbye to a bunch of guys that you may never coach again. The toughest thing is just the reality of not coming in tomorrow and seeing all of them get on the ice and have a good practice and get ready for the next series.”
While the Amerks players and coaches prepare to depart to their own destinations, wherever that may be, for some, the focus has already shifted to 2014-15 where they hope a new season will bring about new memories and fresh success.
“The focus is on training camp next year already, and making [the Sabres] and a big summer of development,” said Pysyk. “Getting bigger and stronger, and also on the ice getting faster and playing a little heavier.”
“It’s going to be a big summer.”