Amerks say off-ice circus had an impact

Reported in the Tuesday April 15, 2008 edition of the Democrat and Chronicle:

Kevin Oklobzija
Staff writer

As the losses piled up on the ice and the franchise’s financial turmoil swirled to tornado force off it, Rochester Americans players didn’t make excuses.

For the most part, they talked a good game, even if they didn’t always play one.

They were politically correct to a fault, saying non-hockey matters didn’t impact their performance.

But with a miserable season now over, players admitted during Monday’s locker cleanout that the off-ice distractions were difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.

Bickering between management of the Amerks and Buffalo Sabres, along with fiscal limitations of the franchise, impacted the players’ every-day activities during their 24-46-6-4 season.

“You’d tell guys from other teams what it’s like and they were kind of shocked,” said winger Rob Globke, who has been an Amerk for three seasons.

The Amerks themselves were sometimes stunned. Like the time Stefan Meyer’s athletic supporter ripped and he was told the supply cabinet was empty.

“Top to bottom, you noticed what was happening,” third-year winger Anthony Stewart said. “The coaches sort of going at it with the owner. Not having certain stuff, like Gatorade.

“We had a lot of first- and second-year guys. Everyone’s inquisitive. They’re all asking what’s going on.”

All those questions  most of which couldn’t be answered were an unnecessary and derisive distraction for a team so young and with no veteran leadership.

“There was just a general uncertainty,” rookie winger Tanner Glass said.

At the same time, however, there were certainties.

“The bus always showed up; the food was always there,” Glass said.

Free food, in fact. The post-game meals on the road  ranging between $350 and $450 per night were still paid for by the team. No other AHL team provides the perk. That’s on top of the meal money players receive.

But an after-game meal couldn’t disguise the spitting match between Amerks owner Steve Donner and the Sabres’ management team.

In late November, Sabres owner Tom Golisano said the 29-year affiliation marriage would be ending. He implied that the Amerks’ cash woes were at the root of the split.

Donner fired back by saying the dual affiliation with the Sabres and Panthers a result of Buffalo’s decision late in the summer of 2005 not to pay for 20-plus minor-league salaries caused many of the problems.

“I feel through the dual affiliation the Amerks have lost their soul,” Donner said on Nov. 27.

At the time, the Amerks’ record was 9-10-1-2.

Over the next six weeks, they won one game, lost 16 and were essentially eliminated from playoff contention.

“I remember that statement impacting me,” Glass said. “Hearing that kind of stuff when we were actually going pretty good was definitely deflating.

“You could tell guys lost faith in each other, lost faith in everything.”

Not that it was ever going to be easy.

When the collegiate season began, Rochester Institute of Technology’s hockey team had an older average age than the Amerks.

“We were basically a team of 21-year-olds playing in a man’s league,” winger Clarke MacArthur said.

“As a whole, as players, we didn’t step up. All the political stuff along with it made it a little tougher.”

Coach Randy Cunneyworth and assistant Jason Cipolla did their best to keep their players focused on hockey, but they knew that was an impossible mission.

“When you’re a young guy, those things are tough to handle,” Cunneyworth said. “I think it certainly played a part in our demise.”

Players said they often jokingly wondered if there would be a bus to take them to a road game or that a hotel wouldn’t let them check in unless they paid themselves. For the record, those things never happened.

“Joking was one way we dealt with it,” Globke said. “What else can you do?”

While all players hope to play in the NHL next season, MacArthur, whose rights are owned by the Sabres, finds it hard to believe Buffalo won’t be sending prospects to Rochester again.

“It’s such a great place to be,” MacArthur said. “Even guys in Buffalo that haven’t played here for years are still checking out what’s going on here.”

Stewart actually doesn’t believe the Florida players will be back. He says the Sabres will find a way to stay.

“Rochester and Buffalo are always going to correlate, that’s my feeling,” Stewart said. “If I was a businessman, I think that would be the best thing.”

As a group, they head home for the summer disgusted.

“To be the worst team in a league is embarrassing,” Globke said. “The hardest thing was going out to play a game every night knowing the other team knew we were the worst in the league.”

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