The city of Rochester has proven to be a staple in the career of Randy Cunneyworth. He began and ended an illustrious 20-year playing career with the Rochester Americans, so it’s only fitting his coaching career would naturally begin and, as of this week, resume in the very same manner.
And with the Amerks embarking on their historic 60th season in the American Hockey League this fall, his return makes it all the more special for the organization, which filled its coaching void by tapping into familiarity. The choice could not have been a better one.
Cunneyworth was officially named head coach of the Amerks on Tuesday and returns to the position he previously held for eight seasons from 2000 to 2008, the longest of any bench boss in the 60-year history of the franchise. The move should come as no surprise, really, considering his prior stint in Rochester was one of the most successful runs by any head coach, highlighted by six playoff appearances over that time and a nod as the AHL’s Coach of the Year for the 2004-05 campaign.
He’s back for another go-around with the Amerks after compiling a 306-273-61 record in his first eight seasons guiding the club. His 306 wins ranks second all-time in franchise history and his 640 games behind the Rochester bench are also second-most in team history. He trails John Van Boxmeer by only 50 games and a mere 27 wins. In addition, the 54-year-old Cunneyworth possesses an incredible knack for developing young players as evidenced by the abundance of current NHL talent, including the likes of Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Derek Roy and Ryan Miller to name a few.
“It’s an exciting day for myself and my family. I’m happy to be back, although I feel like I really never left,” said Cunneyworth, the longtime Rochester resident who has called the Flower City is home for the last 31 years. “I’ve always called Rochester my home. Most of my career has been spent here. I’m looking forward to the challenge ahead and excited to get the season going.”
Prior to the 2013-14 season, Cunneyworth returned to the Buffalo Sabres as the organization’s Development Coach and has been instrumental in that capacity, working closely to develop players in Rochester and serving as a liaison to the Sabres. Cunneyworth has also spent significant time with the club’s top draft picks of recent years, educating the prospects on how to compete at hockey’s highest level and aiding in their transition to the professional ranks. Over the last two seasons, 10 different players have made their NHL debuts for the Sabres under the tutelage of Cunneyworth and several more have made their pro debuts with the Amerks following the conclusion of their respective junior or college careers.
While Cunneyworth has found success in his new role, it’s coaching that he finds the most rewarding and having the opportunity to get back behind the bench, especially the one he’s paced for the better part of a decade, is simply exciting in itself.
“I’ve missed the coaching aspect of it a lot,” said Cunneyworth. “I’ve spent some time in some coach’s offices throughout the leagues over these last few years and obviously a lot of time here in Rochester. You always want to help, but you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. To be able to come back here, jumping in like this, you get your own footprint on things so you’re able to make a difference personally.”
But it was Cunneyworth’s overall penchant for winning at the AHL level that fueled his transition back into coaching, and winning, according to Sabres General Manager Tim Murray, is absolutely vital to the development of the organization’s prospects.
“Randy has already established himself as a valuable member of our hockey department in his previous role as development coach, and his track record for winning in the AHL and developing young players make him the ideal candidate to lead the Amerks.”
Having had the opportunity to coach the franchise once before, and coming off his previous role as development coach, Cunneyworth fully understands the importance of winning and how on-ice success is vital to professional development. He also realizes that winning is expected and that’s the kind of mindset he’s hoping to instill in his players as early as Training Camp.
“Tim (Murray) made it very clear what the mandate is, and it involves a lot of winning,” said Cunneyworth. “The goal is to win more hockey games. It makes it a lot more fun to come to work every day. We’ve got to find a way to get back to the winning ways.”
In nine seasons as an AHL head coach with Rochester and Hamilton, Cunneyworth has compiled a record of 350-302-68 in 720 games, which ranks him eighth all-time in wins and games coached among AHL head coaches. He also ranks second among active coaches in games coached and third among active coaches in wins. Collectively, Cunneyworth has led his AHL teams to four 40-win seasons, three division titles and seven trips to the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Cunneyworth confessed that he wasn’t actively seeking the opportunity to get back into coaching, but admitted Murray broached the subject during the Sabres’ summer development camp in Buffalo earlier this month and “the opportunity presented itself.”
“There was really no timeline on it. I was already employed, I was doing something I enjoyed, and as far as Tim was concerned, we were just having a general discussion,” said Cunneyworth. “It kind of intrigued each other’s interests. Tim has his own agenda and I wasn’t aware of his agenda, but we somehow crossed each other’s paths and had the opportunity to speak about it.”
Before returning to the Sabres, Cunneyworth most recently served as interim head coach for the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens during the 2011-12 season. After beginning the campaign as an assistant coach, Cunneyworth was named to the position on Dec. 17, 2011 when he took over for Jacques Martin and guided the Canadiens to an 18-23-9 record in 50 games. His tenure in the Montreal organization also featured a one-year stint as head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate, whom he guided to a first-place finish in the AHL’s North Division followed by a trip to the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 postseason.
Prior to his time with the Canadiens organization, Cunneyworth spent two seasons as an assistant coach for the Atlanta Thrashers (2008-09 and 2009-10), with whom he went 70-75-19 under head coach John Anderson. Cunneyworth began his coaching career as a player-coach under then-Amerks head coach Brian McCutcheon during the 1999-2000 AHL season. Upon his retirement as a player, he was hired by the Amerks to serve as head coach the following season and retained that post for eight seasons, the longest tenured coach in franchise history.
During the 2006-07 season, Cunneyworth became only the second coach in team history to work 500 career games. He also passed legendary coach Joe Crozier for second place on Rochester’s all-time wins list. The Amerks finished the season in second place in the North Division with 98 points and returned to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons under Cunneyworth.
Cunneyworth’s most successful season at the helm of the Amerks came during the 2004-05 campaign, when he guided Rochester to an AHL-best 51-19-6-4 record (112 points) to capture the MacGregor Kilpatrick Trophy as regular season champions. That same season, Cunneyworth also earned the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s Coach of the Year. The season culminated with the Amerks setting several single-season franchise records, including most points (112) and the longest home winning streak that saw Rochester win 17 consecutive games between Dec. 17 and March 4. Additionally, the 2004-05 Amerks featured plenty of future NHL talent in the likes of Vanek, who would soon etch his name in the record books with an explosive 42-goal season, the most of any rookie in team history, while Miller’s impressive eight shutouts that year still remain the most among all-time Rochester netminders in any given season.
As a player, Cunneyworth had an NHL career that spanned parts of 16 seasons, including three as team captain of the Ottawa Senators. He began his NHL career with the Sabres in 1980-81 after the team selected him in the eighth round of the 1980 NHL Entry Draft and returned to Buffalo in the 1998-99 season for what would be his final NHL season. In 866 career NHL games with Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, Hartford and Ottawa, the Etobicoke, Ont., native registered 414 points on 189 goals and 225 assists.
Aside from two games with Springfield Indians, Cunneyworth spent his entire American Hockey League career in Rochester. He began his career with the Amerks as a rookie in 1980-81 and went onto to record 239 points (101+138) in 377 games over parts of seven seasons, culminating with a Calder Cup championship in 1982-83. Cunneyworth would spend one more season with the Amerks before departing for the NHL in 1985-86, where he would remain for the next 13 seasons. He would ultimately find his way back to the Sabres in 1998-99, helping Buffalo to the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals while also taking the Amerks to the Calder Cup Finals that same year and again in 2000 as a player-coach for Rochester.
With another homecoming in the works, his gratitude of course extends back to the Sabres, which has been somewhat commonplace throughout his entire career, beginning as a player and now as a coach.
“It started with the Buffalo Sabres, for them drafting me, first of all, just allowing me to be involved,” he said. “Then going away and making me feel welcome to come home again. I’m very grateful.”
“It’s an exciting time right now,” Cunneyworth added. “A lot of good things are happening in Buffalo and Rochester and I’m excited to be home again.”
Well, ‘Cunney’, the feeling is mutual.