By Warren Kosel
It’s not very often that a road trip feels more like a homecoming, especially one this early in the season. That will be the rare occasion this weekend, however, as the Rochester Americans embark on a three-game swing through the state of Pennsylvania with matchups against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Friday), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Saturday) and the Hershey Bears on Sunday.
While the Amerks make their first-ever trip to Allentown on Friday, the feeling will be somewhat different for forward Jason Akeson, who returns to Lehigh Valley for the first time as a member of the visiting team. Akeson played the first four years of his pro career with the Phantoms, including three when the team was based in Adirondack leading up to their relocation to Allentown prior to last season.
Admittedly, Akeson is excited about his return to Lehigh Valley having spent so much of his career in the organization. While the sense of familiarity may still be the same, he also understands that when he takes the ice at PPL center on Friday as a visitor, it will be unlike anything he’s experienced in his previous years as a Phantom.
“I think it’s going to be pretty weird,” said Akeson about his return to Lehigh Valley. “I was there for my first four years in this league. It’s going to be crazy for me playing against those guys that I’ve been with for a long time. Some of those young guys I hung out with and kind of showed them the way a little bit too, showed them what I did and gave them pointers. It’s going to be neat to see how those guys are doing and it’s going to be cool to play against the Phantoms and the Philly colors since I was there for so long.”
During his time with the Phantoms, Akeson topped the 20-goal mark while leading the team in goals in each of his last three years. He also surpassed the 50-point mark in all four seasons, including a career-best 64 points (24+40) during the 2013-14 campaign. He completed his tenure in Lehigh Valley raked fourth on the franchise’s all-time scoring list with 225 points on 81 goals and 144 assists in 265 career games for the Phantoms.
Lehigh Valley’s current roster also features several ties to Rochester in forwards Evan Rankin and Kevin Sundher, both of whom were teammates with the Amerks the last two seasons, as well as Fairport native and Cornell University grad Cole Bardreau. Rankin returned to Rochester midway through 2014-15 for his second stint with the Amerks, ending the year with 15 points (8+7) in 32 games. He’s currently scoreless through six games with the Phantoms this season. Sundher, who recently joined the Phantoms on a professional tryout, shows one assist in four appearances for Lehigh Valley after beginning the season with the ECHL’s Reading Royals. A third-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2010, Sundher registered 38 points (11+27) in 129 games over his three seasons (2012-15) in Rochester.
Bardreau, though, has the most personal connection to Rochester. Signed to an entry-level contract by the parent Philadelphia Flyers this past March, the Fairport native is currently in his first pro season in Lehigh Valley after joining the Phantoms for a brief 14-game stint at the end of last season. Prior to turning pro, Bardreau played four years at Cornell University, where he led the Big Red in scoring as a senior with 22 points (5+17) in 30 games. He’s also represented the United States at the international level on numerous occasions, most recently helping Team USA to a gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Championship. Bardreau spent two years as a member of the U.S. National Development Team, where he was a teammate of defenseman Jake McCabe and was coached by former Amerks assistant coach John Wroblewski.
The Amerks will see another familiar face in Saturday’s return to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in former captain Kevin Porter, who was recently assigned to the Penguins after beginning the season in Pittsburgh. Porter spent two of his eight pro seasons with the Amerks, including one as team captain, recording 80 points (34+46) in 98 games in the red, white and blue. The Detroit, Mich., native spent all of last season as a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins.
The AHL’s oldest rivalry will be renewed on Sunday when the Amerks collide with the Bears at Giant Center in a battle of the league’s two cornerstone franchises, but the game itself will have a little extra meaning for Amerks assistant coach Paul Fixter. After winning a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, Fixter joined Hershey’s coaching staff for four seasons, including two as head coach after he took over for Mike Foligno prior to the 2003-04 campaign.
While it’s been more than a decade since Fixter was last in Hershey, he’s looking forward to the opportunity of returning back to the place here his pro coaching career all began.
“It’s going to be a fun weekend,” said Fixter, who posted a 72-79-7 record in his two seasons at the helm of the Bears. “I have a lot great memories from my days in Hershey. We started at the old Hersheypark Arena before we moved onto the new Giant Center. I’m looking forward to seeing some old faces that I haven’t seen in a lot of years. It’s such a great hockey city, and like Rochester now, it has so much history. It’s tremendous to have been a part of it.”
Fixter’s last year behind the bench in Hershey was in 2004-05, the very same year current Amerks head coach Randy Cunneyworth led Rochester to its best season in franchise history with a 51-19-6-5 record and league-best 112 points. Fixter fondly recalls the rivalry games between his Bears and the Amerks from over the years, noting how competitive they were and the abundance of talent that was in the AHL at the time especially during the NHL’s lockout year. But now that he is amongst Cunneyworth’s staff, he can admit that his former nemesis-turned-colleague always had the upper-hand when the league’s oldest teams always clashed.
“Randy’s teams were always tough to play against back then and Chris Taylor (current assistant coach) was also a big part of that,” laughed Fixter. “They had some good players and they were never easy games. They were highly competitive though. I always say a rivalry is only a rivalry when both teams are winning games. I think Rochester did a little bit more winning than we did, though.”