Steve Donner Interview – Part II

“I wanted to make Rochester proud”

LGA: What do you miss the most about owning the Amerks?
Donner: “The People! I miss the fans the most – their happiness after a win. The joy of watching the clock count down on a game day. I was a fan first, so being able to do that in my home town – well – it was a passion more than a job. I wanted to make Rochester proud. I gave it all I had. I hate to see the franchise struggle. I really did give it everything I had. In the first 10 years of my ownership we had the best winning percentage in the AHL”

LGA: Who were some of your favorite players during your tenure as owner?
Donner: “Frawls, Metter, Sharky….Dane Jackson. Sharky (Craig Charron) was my first signing…EVER. Very proud that I gave him a chance when no one else would – and look what he accomplished here! And also a great community guy. Jody of course, too. Became a great GM…for TWO teams. The guys you win with always remain special, of course. Still talk with Torts and Boxie now.”
This segued into a great story about Dane Jackson, who, maybe you recall, signed with the Islanders in 97-98 because they offered him a 2-way contract and Buffalo would not. Jackson wanted it in his contract that if he were to be sent down from the Islanders he would play for the Amerks. The Sabres wanted no part of that because he wouldn’t be one of the their guys. Coming off back to back 20+ goal and 100 PIM seasons and raising our last Calder Cup wearing the C ….. and the Sabres didn’t want him back with Rochester. Well, Donner signed him anyway and as the hockey Gods would have it, during an early season road game prized prospect Vaclav Varada was run by an Albany River Rat. Guess who was the first player to Varada’s rescue? guessed it – Dane Jackson.

LGA: Would it even be possible to do what you did for us 20 years ago in today’s AHL?
Donner: “It is possible, but it’s A LOT more expensive. When I started, the top tier vets would cost you $75k to $80k a piece. Now? Up to a half million. You have Europe being more aggressive and also the new CBA’s have left the AHL totally uncapped. It’s really artificially inflated impact players’ salaries here. In the end, your veteran core has gone from a few hundred thousand per year to a few million. THAT, really wiped out my way of business.”
“There are really 2 ways. The NHL team has to believe in developing while winning AND/OR in a select few markets, like Rochester and Hershey (who owns the building) have local ownership that has support from the local government with regards to a lease agreement providing revenue streams. The Amerks have been supported by ownership groups losing money. Owner generosity and being chalked up as development costs.”
“The other issue is support from other owners around the league. While a development-only philosophy doesn’t work in a tradition filled town like Rochester or Hershey, some of the newer franchises relish the development model. Well, at least for a while. You’re seeing support erode in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre as the newness is gone from the team and building there.”
“All the economics are so difficult today. You have increased Workmans comp and travel expenses.”

LGA: Any hope for a small Northeast league that would be for the 4A player, especially with the KHL financial difficulties?
Donner: “I’ll never say never in sports, but it’s highly unlikely. I looked at an IHL team at one time to purchase and that was too vet extreme. A blend of top prospects and vets is the best way to watch hockey at this level. It would take some wealthy entrepreneurs who had that vision. And even if the KHL lost some players, while a few would come here, most would find another place in Europe.”

LGA: Asked about Curt Styres and The Pegulas
Donner: “Curt was a great owner. He really respected the tradition of the Amerks. He wanted MUCH better for the franchise. He really became frustrated with the lack of support from NHL ownership/management. He found no support in finding an NHL team who instead of 20 kids would send their top 10-12 true prospects to him and let him fill out the rest of the roster his way.”
“You know, you need character to teach prospects how to win at the Professional level. He even looked into becoming a totally independent team, but I told him that would be very difficult today.”
“Florida had the best intentions at the start – they really did. But the changes up top there led to them not really doing some of things they said they were going to do.”
“Along with Curt, The Pegulas have stabilized the franchise financially. They are passionate and pure people. Rochester could still be one of the markets that work as a successful hybrid winning/developmental market – with BOTH teams winning, once the Pegula’s understand the market. Fan loyalty, civic pride, players developing…it could happen. They just have so much on their plate. But their intentions are pure. I’m 100% supportive of Terry and Kim.”

Next up later this week: Chapter III.