By Erica Whyte
It was back in 1999 when Rochester Americans head coach Chris Taylor first donned the Amerks crest as a grizzly forward from Stratford, Ontario. He made the city his permanent home in the early 2000’s, raised both of his kids here, and was a fan-favorite at The Blue Cross Arena before more than half of the current team was even in grade school.
Almost two decades after originally joining the Amerks, Taylor went from a player, to captain and three-time MVP, to Amerks Hall of Famer before finally finding his calling as an assistant coach.
So, it’s safe to say Taylor bled red, white and blue long before he stood behind the bench as Rochester’s 32nd head coach, a role he accepted at the start of the 2017-18 season.
Despite his roots in the Flower City and his deep connection to this team, when Taylor received the official job offer to be the next Amerks head coach, his initial reaction, admittedly, was one of apprehension.
“It was both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time,” said Taylor, who was then the assistant coach for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, “because I know how passionate the fans are here, and I know how much I love the team here, so you almost wonder if you’re ready for that job.”
But according to current Amerks veteran defenseman Nathan Paetsch, who began his 16-year pro career in Rochester under the leadership of then-captain Taylor, the transition from captain to coach was incredibly seamless.
"It was the most natural transition I’ve ever seen, because he was just that type of player,” said Paetsch of his longtime teammate and now head coach. “He was so smart, and a natural leader, and that’s what a coach really is. He was a player, but he had that leadership mentality, and everyone knew he was going to be a coach. It wasn’t a question.”
"He was my captain, and he was also a leader in the room and a leader off the ice. He was and still is a mentor to me,” added Patesch. "Lots of times, I’d sit with him at the back of the bus on road trips home, and lots of times his family would have everybody over to his house. He was always doing a lot for the young guys and helping us along the way.”
As much as Taylor was helping the younger players then, they were, in turn, helping to shape him into the coach he would eventually become.
"When you’re 39 and playing with 20-year-olds, you could be their father,” said Taylor of his veteran years as a player, “so I was always talking to them, and going to different events with them, and I did a lot of learning at that point. I learned a lot about what a player wants, and their expectations, and how they feel when you don’t talk to them, what they do off the ice, and all that stuff. It was good for me.”
A leadership-style that started in the Amerks locker room as a player soon grew and developed to help form the head coach we all now know and love.
But Taylor, as Amerks captain, didn’t lead the team alone. Alongside him was another familiar face to the Sabres organization – Jason Botterill – current general manager of the Buffalo Sabres.
“They had unbelievable chemistry on the power-play, and day in and day out they were our hardest two workers,” said Paetsch of then-teammates Taylor and Botterill. “That's who they were as individuals and players, and that has obviously transitioned to their new roles. You just don’t turn that work ethic off. They work hard at everything in life.”
Hard work, which is paying off in dividends.
After just over one year in each of their roles, both the Amerks and Sabres are looking better than ever. After making it to the playoffs last year for the first time since 2014, the Amerks have spent most of this season atop the North Division while the Sabres were busy making history as the first team ever to finish the previous season in last place and lead the NHL in points after 25 games the following year.
“They’re winners,” continued Paetsch of Taylor and Botterill. "We always had successful teams when those two guys were leading the ship, and it’s the same thing as what they’re doing now. It all just trickles down.”
And as Taylor leads the Amerks in his sophomore season as head coach, he continues to be an inspiration to everyone around him. But perhaps to no one more than Paetsch, who has witnessed first-hand Taylor's graceful rise from player, to captain, to assistant coach, to head coach.
As a team leader himself, who has also made Rochester his permanent home, is currently raising two kids here, and is potentially reaching the end of his playing career after 16 years, it’s hard not to see the similarities between Paetsch’s own story, and that of his longtime mentor, Taylor.
When asked about what the future may hold, Paetsch remained vague. But to many, the writing is on the wall.
"I don’t know what the future holds for me, but obviously it’s getting towards the end here,” he said. “To follow in (Taylor’s) footsteps would be a dream come true, but I’ve got to take it day-by-day and see what happens."