The Americans of Hockey

(originally published in Buffalo Spree, photo courtesy of Micheline Veluvolu)

One November Friday night in Rochester, New York—birthplace of soccer pro Abby Wambach and the garbage plate (that’s food)—I found myself, my brother-in-law, and my father standing along the Genesee River, walking under the new bridge that connects to the eastbound 490. In front of us: Blue Cross Arena, home of the Rochester Americans (colloquially known as the Amerks) American Hockey League team and Buffalo Sabres affiliate. Behind us: Nathaniel’s Bar and Grille, origin of the Caesar salad now in my stomach, and home to twenty flat-screen TVs showing Tebow highlights.

The Arena gates weren’t open yet, but the atrium was packed with people at six p.m., all looking like they belonged to a secret order of Rochesterians. I’ve been to Rochester more than a handful of times, but I can never get over how different the place feels from my hometown of Buffalo. Everything looks more or less the same, but the atmosphere inside social spaces feels very different. Where Buffalo invokes idealism and a confused depression, Rochester responds with pragmatism and a polite anxiety.

An hour before the Americans face-off against the Toronto Marlies, the gates open and the atrium people disperse into the expanse of the arena. There’s a young man in shorts and sneakers flipping a puck in the air, catching it on his stick’s blade, flipping it back in the air, catching it on the shaft, flipping it back in the air, etc. It looks like he’s trying to perfect the annoying children’s game I once received from a cheap uncle—the one with the ball on a string attached to a wooden handle with a space for the ball to fit. Flip the ball up, don’t get it in. Repeat ten times until carsick.

I doubt whether sports are more existentially meaningful than the ball-on-string game, but there’s a strong argument for comparable emotional depth. Seeing the ice itself always releases a nostalgic twitch that lets me know that I’m as good as home. I’ll never forget the first time my dad took me to Buffalo’s War Memorial Auditorium—the ridiculous expanse of the room and the smell of the cold air stale with beer, sweat, and mold. Above all, that clean sheet of ice at the bottom. Perfect.

The Rochester arena’s full name, Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial, retains the building’s post-war origin. It’s named, like many such places across America in the fifties, in honor of the WWII fallen. It was renovated and expanded in the 1990s and renamed in the fashion of most sports venues built in that decade—after the highest bidder. Still, the juxtaposition of the fifties-era structure and its superimposed layer of nineties-era design (considered state-of-the-art when I grew up) felt very familiar.

Pregame, there is an area of the concourse set aside for kids to play a game of knee hockey (after culpability waivers are signed, of course). It was then that I started to get it. Minor league teams in small cities, perhaps in order to survive and retain fan loyalty, cultivate a tighter community and a better family atmosphere than major league teams can.

If the knee hockey didn’t bring it home, there were $2 happy hour beers in the atrium and cheap tickets to really emphasize how cool Rochester can be. Before the game, I asked Amerks vice president of business operations Rob Kopacz why folks from Buffalo should make the trip. “It’s an affordable night of entertainment, and it’s an available night, as most Sabres games are sold out,” Kopacz says. “Down here, these guys are approachable. When the game’s over, [the players] all leave out the back door. There’s no security, and fans line up to meet them and get autographs.”

Kopacz also glows about the Amerks’ roster: “These guys flying up and down the ice are the future stars of the Sabres,” he contends. “These guys are going to be there, if not this year, then in the coming years. I go back to the days when Ryan Miller, Derek Roy, and Jason Pominville were all here with the Amerks. This is where they started and now they’re the core of [the Sabres]. And I look at these guys here, and they’re the next core. I look at [forward Marcus] Foligno, [forward Corey] Tropp, and others, and that’s exciting.”

It almost wasn’t. Despite a twenty-five year plus affiliation with the Sabres—the longest in NHL/AHL history—the Amerks became exclusively affiliated with the Florida Panthers beginning in 2007. This past May, the connection was restored when Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula purchased the Americans. The fans’ excitement can be measured in season ticket sales, which are up seventy percent. Pegula’s wife, Kim, hails from the Rochester area, and it was hard to deny the sense of family that permeated the building that night. Lots of kids in the stands, Amerks’ wives fundraising for the families of Russian hockey players killed in September’s plane crash, and a high school marching band belting out the “Star-Spangled Banner” created a prideful atmosphere that not even hordes of college kids double-fisting $2 beers could sully.

Into the third period, the game was tied 1-1. Of the 6,717 people in attendance, there was a vocal contingent of about seventy-five clamoring for a fight every chance they got. With the Amerks on the power play and looking for the winning goal, the Marlies’ Jerry D’Amigo got a breakaway. With only 2:30 on the clock, an ominous feeling descended. D’Amigo rifled a shot over goalie David Leggio’s blocker for a 2-1 lead. There were more cries for a fight, and some in my section started to loudly complain about Canada, and Canadians, and how they should all go home.

But time ran out on the Amerks and the fight fans. A middle-aged woman in front of me stood and cheered while a disappointed Amerks fan loudly offered some further opinions about Canada. I was told she’s the mother of Marlies’ winger Tyler Brenner. I told my dad, the guy who brought me to my first ten or so hockey games, and he was tickled. It’s all in the family.

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