By Bill Hoppe
It was doomed to fail, Rory Fitzpatrick said. This is a Buffalo Sabres town, and an affiliation between the beloved Americans and another NHL team would never be embraced.
Growing up here, the 36-year-old Fitzpatrick, a Sabres defenseman for parts of four seasons, watched the wildly successful Buffalo-Rochester partnership at its finest. The Amerks won three Calder Cups. Players from those squads became local legends and graduated to the big club 75 miles down the road.
“I think the Sabres are the king here,” Fitzpatrick said Wednesday, shortly after the Sabres discussed their recent purchase of the Amerks inside a packed Blue Cross War Memorial atrium. “There’s a connection there.”
In 2001, the Sabres signed Fitzpatrick as a depth player, and he spent three seasons on some prospect-laden Amerks squads featuring current Sabres stars Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and others.
When the relationship soured and the Sabres severed ties in 2008 after 29 years, Fitzpatrick played two years under the new affiliation with the Florida Panthers.
The Amerks quickly became an American Hockey League dreg with the hapless Panthers. Attendance plummeted, and the team mostly left Rochester’s sporting consciousness.
“It was very tough. It was not a good experience,” Fitzpatrick said about his time with Florida. “I would say not so much the Panthers’ fault. They tried. It doesn’t work here. It was a non-factor.
“No one was talking Amerks hockey, and it was a struggle for two years,” he said.
Fitzpatrick, who still makes his home in Rochester, didn’t attend a game last year after he retired. Now, like a lot of other locals, the Sabres’ presence has recharged him. Even his kids were talking about the Amerks.
“People are talking Amerks hockey again,” Fitzpatrick said. “It went south, and it became a non-factor here in Rochester. When you’re out and about now, people are asking questions, saying they’re going to come to games again. So the excitement’s back, and I think that’s a great thing for Rochester.”
The Sabres, who paid about a reported $5 million for the franchise, believe Rochester’s proximity helps their championship aspirations and brand appeal.
“We consider Rochester very much in the heart of the Sabres nation, a suburb of the Sabres nation,” said Sabres president Ted Black, who promised a second parade in Rochester “when we win the Stanley Cup.”
Black called Buffalo and Rochester one market and “hockey heaven.”
“This is not an affiliation, this is a unification,” Black said.
The Sabres enjoyed three fruitful seasons in Portland and had no complaints about the Pirates’ affiliation other than the long distance to Maine.
“Everyone needs to consider this as more it wasn’t a necessity to leave Portland,” Sabres owner Terry Pegula said. “We had a great thing going there, but it was all about arriving in Rochester, the proximity from the city of Buffalo and the Sabres franchise and our ability to do things much more efficiently.”
Pegula said when he purchased the Sabres in February, general manager Darcy Regier told him about the “University of Sabres.”
“We consider now, between Rochester and Buffalo, that we have our university where we can teach players not only about hockey, but a lot of these guys need to develop some other skills,” said Pegula, who received a warm ovation from the crowd of several hundred.
In just four months, Pegula’s already had a noticeable impact on the Sabres. He’s spent millions and taken a hands-on approach, dramatically changing the team’s reputation around the NHL.
Now he wants to do the same with the Amerks.
“Our plan is to make this franchise a shining star that will develop our players,” Pegula said.
All Amerks season tickets will be $10 a game, Black said.
“We’re going to fill this building up,” Black said. “We know the fans here are committed.”
The Sabres plan to sign veteran players, something the team’s old regime stopped doing during their shared affiliation with the Panthers from 2005-08. Portland was stocked with a lot of experience, which helped the Pirates win and prospects develop.
The Sabres also want to hire developmental coaches.
They need a head coach, too. Regier will address that after free agency calms down. Kevin Dineen, Portland’s coach all three seasons, recently accepted Florida’s head job. Eric Weinrich, his assistant, won’t come to Rochester, Regier said. He could take another job within the organization.
Pegula had wondered for years why the Sabres weren’t in Rochester. A possible purchase was in the back of his head for a long time, he said. The deal got in motion a couple of months ago when Pegula’s wife, Kim, met ex-Amerks owner Curt Styres at a lacrosse game.
The purchase should officially close today, and to Regier, the Sabres are back where they belong.
“It was a sad day when the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans stopped working together,” Regier said. “This opportunity makes you recognize what you have. We had very good things in Portland. It makes you appreciate the opportunities that were lost and now we’re regaining.”