By Ryan J. Harr
More often than not, the beginning of every hockey season usually comes with several roster changes from the previous years’ team. The 2016-17 Rochester Americans roster is no different, as there are 15 newcomers to the lineup from a season ago.
Of those 15 new skaters for Rochester, three last names have seen the backs of Amerks jerseys before. Playing together this season are forwards Alexander Nylander and Justin Vaive. Both of their fathers played for the Amerks during their careers with Michael Nylander having a brief, but productive stint in Rochester during the 2010-11 campaign and Rick Vaive in the early 90’s. Add to the mix defenseman Mac Bennett, who comes from a long line of hockey-playing Bennett’s, and whose uncle, Bill Bennett, wore the red, white and blue for two full seasons during the late 1970’s affiliation with the Boston Bruins.
Michael Nylander was drafted in the third round (59th overall) in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft by the Hartford Whalers. Nylander appeared in 920 NHL games over an 11-year span with six different teams, collecting 679 points (209+470) before concluding his career in North America with a seven-game stay with the Amerks during the 2010-11 season when he scored four goals to go along with a pair of assists.
Alexander never got to see his dad play Rochester as he, too, was pursuing his own hockey career, but says his father is both his biggest critic and his biggest fan all at the same time.
“He usually critiques me after watching the games, but he does that because he wants me to be the best player I can,” said the younger Nylander, who last season led all OHL rookies in scoring before being drafted eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres this past summer. “My dad offers help as much as he can when our schedules permit since he is back in Sweden.”
Rick Vaive, a fellow first-round selection like Alexander, was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks as their fifth overall pick in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft. Prior to skating in 12 games with the Amerks, the former captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs appeared in 856 games in the NHL. He racked up 440 goals and 347 helpers over his 12 seasons in the league with four different clubs.
Justin vaguely remembers his father playing in Rochester largely in part because he was only three years old at the time, but he does have an early memory of his dad playing.
“My first memory that comes to my mind when I think of him playing hockey is when he played for the Sabres,” said Vaive, one of the new additions to the Amerks lineup who was brought in to provide reinforcement on just the second day of the season. “I was scared to death of Sabretooth (Sabres mascot) when he played for the Sabres organization, but that’s all I really member.”
As the older Vaive’s career was winding down, he eventually arrived in the Flower City, where he skated in a dozen Amerks games during the 1991-92 season. Similar to the older Nylander, his tenure in Rochester was short but impressive, scoring four goals and adding nine assists. He also held a dual role as player-coach within the organization.
“It is pretty cool that my dad, towards the back-end of his career, came through Rochester at one point,” said the 27-year-old Vaive. “We have talks from time to time about his career and his player-coach role. During one of those discussions, it is actually how I found out he played here. In his past role he met some of the staff here in Rochester that he still talks to when he comes down from Buffalo for a game.”
Nearly 15 years prior to the older Vaive playing in Rochester, Bill Bennett made his American Hockey League debut with Amerks during the 1976 playoffs. The high-scoring winger played in Rochester until the end of the 1978-79 campaign, scoring 44 goals and 71 assists in 139 career contests. The senior Bennett went on to appear in 31 NHL games for the Boston Bruins and Hartford Whalers, scoring four times and gathering seven assists before retiring in 1982.
While Mac was born long after his uncle last played for the Amerks, it was Bill who ultimately introduced his nephew to the game of hockey.
“Since my Uncle Bill retired, to this day he still enjoys doing hockey related things, and he was actually the one of the people who taught me how to skate,” said Bennett, who is also new to the organization this season. “He owned a hockey shop and ran a hockey school at a rink about 20 minutes from home in Rhode Island. He not only helped my skating, but at the beginning of every practice session he would flip a puck from one of the face-off circles, and if it landed on top of the net, then we would scrimmage the entire session, so he helped with hockey my play, too.”
As with Mac, Alexander and Justin, each credit their family members as the main reason they followed similar career paths.
“Growing up, getting to watch my dad play with my family, it made me really love the sport,” Alexander explained. “I played hockey, soccer and tennis as a child, but as I got older, I needed to focus on just one sport and hockey was definitely my top choice.”
“My brother and I got involved playing hockey because of our dad,” said Justin. “After games or after some practices, my dad would take us out on the ice and as a youngster. Who would not doing enjoy that?”
Alexander, Mac and Justin all may be new to the Amerks organization this season, but like their fathers and uncle before them, now it’s their turn to make a name for themselves in Rochester.