Last Thursday’s gathering among the Rochester Americans players wasn’t like any normal day of work at The Blue Cross Arena. The players reported to the rink like they always do, but there was no morning skate, video session or postgame workout that became customary over the course of the season – just a locker to clean out and a ride home to catch.
For the last seven months, over 30 players from four different countries called Rochester their home and turned what was a collective group of individuals into a band of brothers who went to war for each other. Thursday’s final reunion brought the Amerks family together for one last time as the players packed up their belongings and said their good-byes before returning home for the summer, but not without one last exchange of friendly locker room banter.
But when all is said and done, the feeling of a season’s end is bittersweet as the players parted ways and embarked on their journeys home, leaving behind their hockey family and a sense of familiarity.
“I’ve never been around a team that got along with each other as well as we did, but honestly we did all season,” said defenseman Joe Finley, who led the Amerks with 143 penalty minutes and served as defensive partner to fellow blueliner Shaone Morrisonn. “It really was a great group of guys we had this year and hopefully there will be some familiar faces in training camp this fall so we can pick up right where we left off.”
Although it’s always difficult to accept defeat, especially given the abundance of talent that comprised the Amerks dressing room, the early dismissal from the postseason also provided some time to reflect on the last seven months. Despite the overwhelming disappointment of their first-round departure, there are still plenty of positives the players are focusing on that will carry them through summer months and into next season.
“Anytime the season comes to an end is never a good feeling,” said forward Travis Turnbull. “I never expected the early departure from the playoffs there, but that’s how things happen sometimes. I would have liked to win it all this year, especially for the fans. They packed the house every night and made it a really fun place to play.”
The Amerks shouldn’t be too disconcerted, however, as there were several moments over the course of the season that really showcased the character of the team, including the team’s late-season surge that earned them a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season. It may appear that the Amerks were eliminated from postseason play early, but Rochester’s first-round series against Toronto marked the second in three years and the 42nd playoff appearance overall in the 56-year history of the franchise. Not a bad track record for the American Hockey League’s second-oldest team, considering all the adversity they were forced to overcome in the early stages of the season. That, according to the team’s veteran leaders, is what truly defines a team.
“There were a lot of good things that happened here this season,” said team captain Colin Stuart. “Obviously, if you look at the situation with Buffalo in terms of their injuries and a lot of call-ups here from Rochester, we had to battle through some adversity early on and I was proud of the way guys battled down the stretch. We were kind of in playoff mode for the last month there and, and obviously we weren’t just happy to make it into the playoffs, but I think it’s a credit to a lot of guys on this team to accomplish that.
Veteran forward Paul Szczechura also echoed Stuart’s testaments about having to rise above the hardships, but it was the team coming together at the right time that keyed the team’s overall success.
“I think we definitely accomplished a lot as a team when you look at everything we had to overcome,” said Szczechura, who finished second on the team in scoring and reached his second straight 20-goal campaign. “Obviously we wanted to go farther in the playoffs, but with the guys we had, the young guys we had, and the injuries to Buffalo, I thought we played hard and battled right to the end. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go farther, but overall we did a lot of good things and definitely turned some heads this season.”
Despite the adversity the Amerks had to conquer in the early goings of the season primarily due to the devastating number of injuries to the big club, it allowed the opportunity for several of Rochester’s youngsters to make the jump to the next level and contribute offensively, especially in key situations.
Rochester saw a dozen different players make the 75-mile trek west down Interstate 90, including several on game day, with Stuart and Szczechura both among those fortunate enough to earn an NHL promotion. In addition, the Sabres have also required the services of goaltender Drew MacIntyre, defensemen Joe Finley, T.J. Brennan, Brayden McNabb and forwards Luke Adam, Marcus Foligno, Corey Tropp, Travis Turnbull and Derek Whitmore. The group combined for 157 total games, recording 65 points on 23 goals and 42 assists. The Sabres also had six different rookies, all of which spent time with the Amerks, score their first NHL goal this season, marking the first time since the 1992-93 campaign Buffalo’s freshmen class accomplished the feat.
“Getting a taste of the NHL is really special and it gives you a little extra motivation this summer to hopefully be there full-time next year,” said Brennan, whose career-high 16 goals this season tied him for the league lead in goals by a defenseman.
Brennan, one of the six to score their first NHL goals, did it in historic fashion on November 23 against Boston, becoming the first Buffalo Sabres defenseman to score in his first NHL game since Buffalo Head Coach Lindy Ruff did so back on Oct. 11, 1979.
Another player to join that list was Foligno, who is likely to become a permanent fixture in the National Hockey League in 2012-13 following quite the impressive rookie campaign in Buffalo’s system. With six goals and seven assists in just his first 14 NHL games, Foligno became just the third Sabres rookie in team history to record seven points through his first six career NHL appearances, joining Hall of Fame defenseman Phil Housley and former Amerk Ray Sheppard. Only five other active NHL players have scored six or more goals in their first nine career games, a feat accomplished by Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne (8), Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin (8), Minnesota’s Devin Setoguchi (7), New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk (6) and Washington captain Alex Ovechkin (6). On March 14 against Colorado, Foligno notched his first career multi-goal NHL game and came within a goal of becoming the first Sabres rookie to score a hat trick since Jason Pominville did so during the 2005-06 season.
Foligno was later named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for March after posting 11 points (6+5) and a plus-10 rating in 11 games for the Sabres. Playing on a line with Tyler Ennis and former Amerk Drew Stafford, the trio combined for 21 goals and 28 assists, helping Buffalo to an 8-3-2 record between March 9 and April 6.
For one player, though, the season represented a unique opportunity that very few are fortunate to experience – the chance to play for your hometown team in front of your friends and family. Whitmore, a lifelong resident of the Rochester suburb of Greece, cherished the opportunity to continue his career at home and it’s certainly something he’ll never forget.
“For me, to be able to come home and be a part of this great franchise and the history here and to have a successful season, it definitely is up there with a season that I’ll never forget,” said Whitmore, who had another career year and led the Amerks with 28 goals on the season, including eight on the power-play.
Aside from his homecoming, Whitmore was also able to add a few more items to his hockey resume this season. The hometown hero first posted his best game as a professional in a 5-3 win over the Hamilton Bulldogs on November 26, scoring a career-best four goals (two in the first, two in the third), including two in the first 1:53 of the contest, to power the Amerks to a win over their North Division rivals. The game also featured Whitmore’s first career hat trick as he single-handedly outscored the Bulldogs on his way to becoming the first Amerks player to net four goals since Jason Pominville’s five-goal outing against Cleveland on Oct. 21, 2005.
The highlight of the season, however, was getting the call he waited nearly four years for – that the big club was short on bodies and he was needed to step up. Welcome to the NHL.
“That was a great experience and a great opportunity,” said Whitmore about making his long-waited and much anticipated NHL debut for the Sabres. “Just to say you got to the NHL and played a few games is something I can always reflect on and look back on.
“Everything that I was fortunate enough to experience this season are those moments and those memories I’ll never forget.”