“They were the love of my life.”
In 1994, the Buffalo Sabres needed to divest money losing entities like the Rochester Americans – to be scuttled or sold – in order to finance and build the Marine Midland Arena, now known as the First Niagara Center.
Steve Donner had already made it known to close friend and former boss Seymour Knox as well as Gerry Meehan that owning the Amerks would be a dream come true. While he enjoyed his time as VP with the Tampa Bay Lightning, his wife missed WNY and he really had a strong desire to test his own philosophies on a franchise he owned. While a deal was going to take a little time, Donner took a chance and returned to Rochester to be President of the Amerks (with an option to buy) where he had worked as marketing director in the early 80’s. So on a Wednesday night, watching a lackluster performance in front of a nearly-empty arena, then-Sabres President, Doug Moss said, “Are you SURE you want to buy this team?
With that, the Cinderella story of the 1995-1996 Calder Cup Championship team was born, and the growing development-only philosophy of the previous 2 years was replaced with a new motto: “Developing players in a WINNING environment.”
Donner stood outside the War Memorial after purchasing the Amerks and declared that development-only hockey doesn’t work in Rochester. He was going to give back to the community he was born and raised in. Inspired by the 1960’s championship run of the Amerks and the Don Cherry-led independent spirit of the early 70’s, he was going to run the Amerks the right way – with a focus on Rochester. He signed the likes of Scotty Metcalfe, Dan Frawley and Craig Charron, to restore pride in the Amerk brand, and his vision led the Amerks to one of their most successful runs in franchise history. This run included the 1996 Calder Cup Championship, along with two more trips to the Calder Cup Finals and a more than respectable Spengler Cup appearance. The final Calder Cup appearance in 2000 is the last significant banner to be raised.
Steve Donner’s dream had come true, but unfortunately for the man who poured his heart and soul into the franchise, it would be interrupted by nightmares…