By Warren Kosel
The past 32 years have brought about significant change in the history of the Rochester Americans. A time defined by years of on-ice success and when playoff hockey was a regular occurrence to changes in ownership, management and personnel.
Nearly four decades later, the one constant remains Don Stevens, whose iconic and legendary call has become a staple of Amerks games. A career that began in Rochester in 1986 that would bear witness to the some of the most memorable moments in team history, including two Calder Cups, a dozen different head coaches and countless bus trips, has now become a way of life for Stevens and all Amerks fans alike. This past season was the 62nd for the AHL’s second-oldest franchise in Rochester and Stevens has been around for more than half of them. An impressive stat to the say the least.
But what many don’t know, including Stevens for that matter, was what was initially intended to be just a temporary stop on the path to other opportunities turned out to be a calling for the veteran broadcaster who just closed the books on his remarkable 32nd season as the “Voice of the Rochester Americans.”
“At the time, in my mind this was going to be probably a two-year stay, at most, because I moved across the country fully expecting to be in the National Hockey League, but for various reasons it just didn’t work out,” recalled Stevens, this year’s recipient of the Gary Smith and George Beahon Sports Media Excellence Award.
Stevens will be honored among several other winners at the upcoming 69th annual Rochester Press-Radio Club Day of Champions Children’s Charities Dinner on Monday, June 18 at the Joseph A. Floreano Riverside Convention Center. The event will be headlined by Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Thome.
After getting his start in broadcasting calling minor-league hockey and baseball games on the west coast, Stevens was eventually lured to Rochester in search of a better opportunity. Despite several other AHL offers on the table, a recommendation by former Buffalo Sabres broadcaster and current Nashville Predators play-by-play man Pete Weber led to a meeting with then Amerks general manager George Bergantz. The rest, they say, is history.
“I liked everything that was said, and I heard the best about Rochester and decided this was my choice to come here,” said Stevens, whose career in broadcasting has taken the Wainwright, Alberta, native all over the United States, Canada and Europe.
His previous stops included markets as Seattle, San Diego, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.
Stevens enjoyed immediate success in his first season in Rochester. The team captured the South Division title via a shootout win in the final game of the regular season that year, the first in which the AHL experimented with the now-standard shootout rule, and finished only one point behind the Sherbrooke Canadiens, who the Amerks eventually defeated to win their fifth Calder Cup later that spring.
The success didn’t stop there, however. Rochester would qualify for the playoffs in six of his first seven years and would go onto win the AHL’s top prize again in 1996 with Stevens behind the microphone. Making it even more special was having been there to witness the beginning and end of so many illustrious careers including that of Jody Gage, Jim Hofford, Gates Orlando and Don Lever to name a few.
Stevens was also part of hockey history when he called the first-ever goal scored by a goaltender when Amerks Hall of Famer Darcy Wakaluk shot the puck the length of the ice into an empty net in a game against the Utica Devils back on Dec. 6, 1987. The feat would be matched just two days later by Philadelphia Flyers netminder Ron Hextall, who would be the first to do so at the NHL level.
Since then, Stevens has been behind the microphone for five of the 11 goals scored by an AHL goaltender, most recently in 2010-11 when Binghamton’s Chris Holt became the 10th netminder in league history to a score a goal with his empty-netter against Rochester.
He even called Rochester’s historic 2,000th franchise win back in 2009-10 as the Amerks joined an elite club, becoming just the second team in the American Hockey League and eighth overall in North American hockey history to achieve the feat. He, too, joined an elite club as only seven other broadcasters before him were able to do the same. Seven.
Despite all this, however, Stevens longed for more. He was convinced and determined that the NHL was next and an opportunity would present itself. Sadly, though, it never did.
“It’s not that I didn’t try on occasion to go to the National Hockey League, because that was my ultimate goal, but for circumstances one way or another, it just didn’t work out and it just sort of got to the point where I was in Rochester long-term. When my kids got to the age where we didn’t want to move them out of their schools, I stopped looking for jobs in the NHL.”
What seemed to be a disappointing loss in the eyes of Stevens turned out to be a rather significant gain for the Amerks organization, the city of Rochester and the American Hockey League as a whole. Stevens may not have known it then, but it was at that moment that he was on his way to establishing himself as one of the elite broadcasters in the game who would soon become synonymous with the Amerks hockey.
Not only that, but he also found a place he could call home.
Since his arrival in 1986, Stevens has seen many changes in the AHL since he first put on the headphones and called his first Amerks game at the old Rochester War Memorial. Known as the “Dean of AHL Broadcasters,” Stevens has witnessed the overall expansion of the League, which will see an all-time high 31 teams beginning with the 2018-19 season, as well as the explosion of media coverage of the AHL in general.
The Amerks’ broadcaster has also served the team in numerous capacities during his tenure, including public relations director, TV host, radio talk show host, and TV and radio play-by-play broadcaster. In addition, Stevens founded the AHL Broadcasters/Writers Association and served as its president.
Over his 32 years with the team, Stevens has been able to experience just about everything within the organization. As much enjoyment he’s been able to experience so, too, have been the hardships he’s had to overcome. But it’s the opportunity to be a part of it all and witness the change, either good, bad or indifferent, firsthand that has kept him grounded in Rochester. That, and the people he’s been able to surround himself with for the past four decades. People he’s called mentors, colleagues, co-workers all fall under one category – friends. It’s the friendships and relationships he’s been able to forge along the way is what he’s most proud of.
“It’s often said there can’t be high highs unless there are low lows, and certainly there has been that here in Rochester, but there’s one thing that’s been consistent and that is the people. The people I’ve met, from fans to players to coaches, have been great people. For me that’s been the biggest thing is the people that I’ve met, and the time I get to spend each season with. It’s all been just a tremendous experience.”
In addition, Stevens said it’s just as gratifying to watch the development of the organization’s youth as they make way through their careers, beginning with the Amerks.
“Just to be able to witness the growth of the younger players and see them go through their careers is something I’ll always carry with me,” said Stevens. “To know that you were there and helped them along the way. It’s always nice to see the lifecycle of athletes and now seeing the sons of former Amerks back when I first started.”
Following the 2012-13 season, Stevens’ 27th as the Amerks play-by-play man, he was awarded with the AHL’s prestigious James H. Ellery Memorial Award for excellence in radio coverage for the second time in his career.
The “Voice of the Amerks” calls games on the new radio home of the Amerks, 95.7 FM/950 AM ESPN Rochester, in addition to calling select home games live on the MSG Network. He teams up with color analyst and former Buffalo Sabre Ric Seiling to bring AHL games to the City of Rochester and around the country. Stevens also had the distinction of covering the Amerks on multiple occasions over the NHL Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio, introducing Amerks hockey on both a national and international level.
Stevens’ most memorable season with the organization came during the 2010-11 campaign, his 25th with the red, white and blue. Stevens’ years of dedicated service to the club was acknowledged with his enshrinement in the team’s prestigious Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2011. As the 50th member of the Hall, and just the second broadcaster inducted, Stevens joined an elite group of individuals whose tireless contributions and commitment to the franchise matched those of the original 1956 Rochester Americans.
From 1996-2009, Stevens maintained a dual role while also serving as the broadcaster for the Rochester Rhinos (United Soccer League). With the Rhinos, Stevens was part of back-to-back regular season championships (1998-99), three A-League championships in four years (1998, 1999 and 2001), the 1999 U.S. Open Cup and 14 consecutive playoff runs during his tenure. In 1998, he even covered an Amerks hockey game and the Rhinos’ championship game on the same day. Stevens was inducted into the Rhinos Hall of Fame on Sept. 24, 2016 during halftime of the club's final regular-season home matchup, becoming the first broadcaster in Rhinos team history to earn the honors.
Throughout his career, he has received numerous awards for his work on radio and television. In 1993-94, he won his first AHL James H. Ellery Award, given to the person that has made outstanding contributions to the progress of the AHL for his work on the former Amerks Radio Network. Stevens has also won a national ACE Award for Cable Excellence as the host of the weekly television show, “Amerks Report,” and received the Rochester Press-Radio Club’s Louis MacMillan Award for sportscasting excellence. In 2003, he was inducted into the Frontier Field Walk of Fame in the media category. The Walk of Fame is located inside Frontier Field and features the names of fans, players, contributors and media throughout Rochester’s sports history.
With the Amerks, Stevens has broadcast seven Calder Cup Finals and the Spengler Cup in Switzerland, winning a pair of Calder Cup championships in the process. Stevens has taken the AHL to its highest level during the course of his career and has shown his true professionalism by working with younger broadcasters throughout the league. Each season he has made it a point to “promote the Rochester Americans and the American Hockey League,” from his seat in the radio booth to the podium at numerous charity events.
How would all this be possible and what would the Amerks be without Stevens if he hadn’t come to Rochester all those years ago?
“If there’s probably a spot in minor-league sports anywhere that would be a great place to be, it’s in Rochester. Being a westerner, I’d never thought I’d say that. It’s a great city. The fans, the media, the staff I’ve worked with over the years have been nothing short of just incredible in my life and I don’t think I could’ve found a better spot.”
Well, Mr. Stevens, Rochester wouldn’t be the same without you.