By Warren Kosel
It’s not often in the realm of professional sports, and in this case, hockey, that a team can celebrate its longevity as well as so many other organizational milestones all at the same time. But when the Rochester Americans embarked on their historic 60th-anniversary season back in the fall, everyone who in some way has been associated with the franchise over the years – from the players and coaches to the front office and fans – knew first-hand that this season in particular was going to be exactly that.
All season long, the Amerks, whose reign in the American Hockey League ranks second to only the Hershey Bears, have made an increased effort to pay tribute to their storied past while honoring those who have shaped the organization’s rich history along the way. Among those individuals is head coach Randy Cunneyworth, who in more ways than one, is synonymous with the Amerks, an organization that both started and ended his career as a player and allowed him to transition into the coach and mentor he is today.
The city of Rochester has been a staple in his career, first winning a Calder Cup as a player back in 1983 followed by AHL Coach of the Year honors in 2004-05 and an induction into the Amerks Hall of Fame in 2010. Fast forward to almost six years later, the now 54-year-old Cunneyworth can add an even more impressive accolade to his already illustrious resume as the all-time winningest coach in franchise history.
“It’s exciting,” said Cunneyworth, who officially eclipsed former Calder Cup winning head coach and fellow Amerks Hall of Famer John Van Boxmeer for most all-time with a 6-5 victory over the St. John’s IceCaps on Mar. 23.
The two are linked beyond that of being one and two in coaching wins for the better part of the previous decade. Cunneyworth played for Van Boxmeer in the latter’s first year as Rochester’s head coach in 1984-85 before going onto play 16 seasons in the NHL. As fate would have it, the two were reunited again years later in the very same Buffalo Sabres organization with Cunneyworth in his current role and Van Boxmeer now serving as a pro scout for the NHL club.
“I’d like to congratulate Randy on achieving this milestone,” said Van Boxmeer. “I think he’d agree that to be able to do something like this, you need a great organization and great players. I am very happy for Randy, especially with him being an ex-player of mine and keeping it in the Amerks family. I wish him continued success going forward.”
It was win No. 338 for Cunneyworth in Rochester and 382 as an American Hockey League head coach. He posted a 44-win season in 2010-11 during a brief one-year stint with the Hamilton Bulldogs, who ironically enough, previously served as the top affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens.
“I’m very proud to have as many wins as I do,” added Cunneyworth. “To be working with the guys that I that I’ve worked with…Paul (Fixter) and Tails (Chris Taylor) have been great, Bobby Janosz as well. We’ve got a great group in here that works awfully hard and I’m proud to be working alongside with those guys.”
What made the record-setting night all the more special for Cunneyworth was the manner in which he won it, leading the Amerks to one of the most improbable and exciting comeback wins in recent memory. Facing a 5-1 deficit with 15:29 left to play in the third period, Rochester scored five straight unanswered goals, setting the stage for Chad Ruhwedel’s dramatic game-winner with only four seconds remaining in regulation. Not even Hollywood could have scripted a better ending on such a historic night.
“We wanted to come out in the third and really try to make a statement,” said Cunneyworth afterwards. “We did have a concerted effort in terms of forecheck and aggressiveness and I think it paid off. We battled and scratched and clawed and with that kind of energy good things happen. We needed that one and you could see the excitement on the bench. It was a very exciting win and not for anything about me, but it was for the two points for the playoff drive and that’s all we’re concerned about at this point.”
Immediately after the game, assistant coach Chris Taylor scooped the puck before presenting it to his former coach turned colleague in the middle of the Amerks locker room. Cunneyworth took a moment to personally thank his players and staff while acknowledging the achievement, but not without reminding his team there is work that still needs to be done in order to make the playoffs, a feat he’s done in six of his previous eight seasons behind the Rochester bench.
“It’s something I’m proud of, but it takes a lot of good teams and a lot of good players to accomplish that. It does mean I’ve been around for a while, and that’s OK, too. But, my priorities are to win because of what we’re trying to do, which is to make the playoffs. That’s absolutely first and foremost. Obviously we want to be playing good hockey this time of year.”
“For no other reason than wanting the points that we were giving up for the playoff drive, that’s the only intention and the only thing matters at this point as far as I’m concerned.”
Prior to his return as head coach of the Amerks, Cunneyworth previously held the position for eight seasons from 2000-2008, the longest of any Rochester bench boss, over which time he compiled a 306-273-61 record during one of most successful runs by any coach in team history. With 382 career AHL victories under his belt, Cunneyworth currently sits in sixth place all-time among AHL coaches in wins. He also ranks sixth all-time among AHL coaches in games coached and will own fifth place by the season’s end. Entering this season, there are only two active coaches in the AHL with more wins than Cunneyworth – John Anderson of the Chicago Wolves, and Roy Sommer of the San Jose Barracuda.
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 Thomas 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 Ryan Miller’s impressive eight shutouts that year still remain the most among all-time Rochester netminders in any given season.
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.
Cunneyworth retired from hockey following the 1999-00 season, ending his career in Rochester ranked 13th on the franchise’s all-time games played list (377) and 19th in goals (101) while finishing 22nd among all-time forwards in points (239).