WNY Border Wars

WNY Border Wars

The evening turned to night at the Senior Living Community. The last light faded from the sky, and beyond the city lights, you could see a few stars in the sky from the 6th floor window. I heard knocking at the door and got up from my seat next to my client’s bed. The person at the door was his wife. She was visiting for the third time that day, but the visit was surely not unwelcome as her husband perked up on his bed.

Her husband had a combination of extreme dementia and cerebral palsy that made him not only sparingly mentally present but also occasional hallucinating of things that were not there. In one of the spells of quiet that occurred on and off over the course of the next 25 minutes, his wife looked over at me, now sitting on the opposite side of the room from her husband and noticed me on my phone. She asked what I was looking at. I was embarrassed at first because it was against my company’s policy to be on your phone while with a client.

I turned off my phone and answered simply: “Hockey.” I hoped my lack of attentiveness hadn’t offended her. A smile came across her face: “Frank and I love hockey!” Surprised at her reaction, I said I was checking the score of the NHL Eastern Conference Final where the New York Rangers were in a tight series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. She asked if I had been to any Rochester Americans games. That particular season I had not due to family challenges but down through the years going back to the early 2000s my dad did occasionally take my siblings and me to Amerks games. She was overjoyed to hear that. She recounted years of dates, friend gatherings and exciting spring evenings at the Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester, New York. She named off Amerks legends going back to the early sixties chuckling particularly at the memories she had of one Don Cherry. The legendary Boston Bruins head coach had spent much of his AHL playing career in Rochester and even coached for a few years. He was on those teams in the sixties that brought home most of the City’s Calder Cups. She recalled yelling Don’s name down a hallway in the bowels of the arena and catching his attention. She recalled the wink Mr. Cherry supposedly returned to her.

She recalled her first date with her now sleeping husband: it was an Amerks game. She recalled the thrilling experience she had supporting those teams. She shed a tear when she remembered her husband proposing to her. On her way out, she gave her husband one more kiss on the forehead and picked up her purse. She thanked me for my work at his bedside. She looked back to him with a sigh saying: “Yeah, we actually supported that team. This City really did back in the day.”

After she had left I stood up to clock out over the phone as I caught sight of my replacement coming down the hallway. It was pure happenstance that I looked into the closet and saw an Amerks hat. It looked to be several decades older than me. As I drove home down Highland Avenue, I pondered my own past as an Amerks fan. I had seen no championships growing up. I had only ever been to one sell-out Blue Cross Arena my entire life, and that was for a friend’s college graduation.

The Amerks came into existence in 1956, a full 14 years before neighboring Buffalo was awarded their expansion team in 1970. For the first decade of the Amerks in Rochester, the team was at different points an affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and both at the same time. For one season the affiliation was the Minnesota North Stars, for another few seasons, it was the Boston Bruins. The first Western New York marriage of the Sabres and the Amerks came in 1979. That lasted decades before the Amerks would belong to the Florida Panthers for a brief span between 2008 and 2011.

The Rochester Americans are right up there with the Hershey Bears as one of AHL hockey’s oldest and most storied franchises. The Amerks took on a unique identity, like its own brand based in Rochester. Rochester loved it. In the nearly 50 years Buffalo has hunted for their first championship, Rochester has found three of their total six. If you asked the average Rochester Hockey fan today if any of this really puts the Amerks on a different level than the Sabres they would tell you absolutely not. Maybe an older fan would say the Amerks are closer to their heart, but the most common answer will always be that Rochester and Buffalo and most everything west of Syracuse as a matter of fact, is the same kind of hockey ilk. Western New York hockey is a unifier, not a dividing factor between these places.

But that’s also where the Border Wars begin. In Rochester, in Elmira, in Ithaca and Geneseo we’re all one big Western New York family: but not in Buffalo. In Buffalo, Western New York is the Queen City and her suburbs. Western New York means something different in her largest city. This mentality is not lost on the hockey fans of the area. In recent years, Rochester has been looked at with some degree of snark by the hockey loving populace residing in the 716 area code. As the Sabres bottomed out and began a rebuild, they looked East and saw an Amerks fan base complaining about 2, 3 and 4 years of AHL mediocrity. Amerks fans grumbled when the players that Sabres General Manager Tim Murray assembled were either MIA in Buffalo or a storehouse for squandered talent during the tank. Rochester fans began to develop a quiet resentment for how the Sabres organization was treating their legendary team while Buffalo fans started wondering if Amerks fans had lost touch with the reality of how this hockey business is run.

The Battle of the Blue Cross Arena

The kicker is that none of this border war is real. The majority of Amerks fans aren’t clueless about the NHL-AHL hierarchy and business structure and most Sabres fans don’t sincerely believe Rochester is a junk market for hockey. So what’s up with this growing distance that seems to have grown larger than the stretch of the Thruway between these two cities and the greater Western New York hockey world? You don’t need to look deep into hockey social media or listen to hard at either team’s hockey games to hear these silly suppositions circulating more and more these days. What is it?

The Buffalo Sabres organization is currently mired in their longest playoff drought in franchise history. It looks like it will be six years without playoffs in Buffalo this spring and no one, especially the Blue and Gold Faithful are happy about that. A Rebuild which some thought would be heeding a post season berth by now has hit a speed bump or two and probably won’t deliver that goal this season. Meanwhile, the people running the show in Terry and Kim Pegula must be sweating the media ire that now also flows from a Buffalo Bills NFL franchise that is 17 years out of their playoffs and in a relative state of organizational disarray in this past January. The Pegulas have the vision to weather the storm, but the ship is indeed rocking now.

One villain in this whole story has to be one Russ Brandon. He is the President of all the Pegula’s sports holdings, including the Sabres and Amerks. While it is debated whether or not Brandon’s voice on the Sabres side of things is affecting the direction of the NHL team or not it is pretty much an accepted fact that Brandon is jerking the Rochester Americans and the City of Rochester around in the media. In September, there was a disappointed murmur from the once great hockey fan base in Rochester when the Sabres canceled their preseason game at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena for the claim that the Arena is not up to standards for such a game. That accusation is firmly based in reality.

The once cutting edge arena has the amenities of a 1982 Sears Customer Service Department. The televisions look like they are thirty years old, the size of the concourses, seating, in-arena comforts and locker rooms are negligible. While the arena also houses Rochester’s National Lacrosse League Nighthawks and PBL Razor Sharks, the roof is too low to draw regular concerts and other similar events causing the arena to struggle financially. The Arena is owned by the City of Rochester whom already has pledged arena upgrades in the summer of 2017. The state of the Blue Cross Arena is no secret, and Russ Brandon has historically made this state of affairs an issue in the media as a means of forcing the matter.

In spite of the Amerks fan base not being what it once was, there is still a sizeable group of Amerks fans and a City itself which greatly values the hockey team they have at the Blue Cross Arena. That’s why when Brandon recently made another media foray concerning the Amerks he ruffled some feathers more than usual. Speaking of Pegula Sports and Entertainment (PSE), Brandon specified in this statement: “PSE is exploring all options for the Amerks organization with its primary preference to have the franchise remain a driver in the Rochester community as an anchor in the emerging downtown corridor.” With that statement came the first tangible hint that the Amerks’ days in Rochester may be numbered.

Full disclosure: I am an Amerks fan. Rochester is the city I was born in and the home I’ve known my whole life. I have been blessed with Amerks Hockey. Admittedly, I have a stake in the matter. The mere suggestion that the Amerks might leave the Blue Cross Arena, even as a “secondary preference,” is enough to scare this hockey city. The repercussions of the Sabres rebuild have actually started hitting the Amerks the last two seasons. The state of the on-ice product and now the thought of the Amerks leaving the BCA, even it was just for the Rochester Institute of Technology’s campus, furthers an unfolding AHL embarrassment and decline of a fan engagement.

If anything makes real the to-this-point imaginary rift between Rochester and Buffalo hockey fans, it is this. While Rochester Americans fans feel this way, they look west to Sabres fans whom will only shoot one more annoyed glance in Russ Brandon’s direction as if to react at all to the growing plight of their AHL affiliate. When it rains, it pours and sure enough within the same month as the Blue Cross Arena bombshell came the last straw in the already worsening picture for the lowest hockey affiliate in the Pegula Empire: the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals. While the Pegula’s lavished a great college hockey arena on Terry’s alma mater Penn State in recent years, the Jackals will likely lose their lease at First Arena and be forced to either move or fold the team.

Trouble in the Empire

Perhaps I have painted Buffalonians in a too harsh light. It is easy to imagine why issues for minor league affiliates in places that you don’t even consider your same region may not seem terribly important. There is no indignation in that. But the problem that could be easily written off as the obsession of a few angry twitter eggs a few short years ago is now a real, measurable hockey family feud in the making.

It’s hard to imagine the Pegulas would be warded off from making a greater financial investment in either the Blue Cross Arena or the worsening situation in Elmira. The City of Rochester does own the BCA, but that certainly would be a road block if PSE wanted to help the situation. For now, we just have to watch Russ Brandon pressure the city through the media. Although a renewed, playoff ready Amerks side making a push from the Gene Polisseni Center at RIT is not an entirely awful thought, it certainly knocks the Amerks down a peg.

More than a few NHL cities have their AHL affiliates and other connected teams within their greater metropolitan area. The rise of the Pegulas as the rulers of the Buffalo Sports Scene is not without similar parallels in Edmonton, Calgary, and Las Vegas. Do Terry and Kim think the Buffalo Sabres impending ascent back into NHL relevance requires a similar geographic consolidation of their empire?

What occurs over the next five years in the newly christened Western New York Border Wars will be telling. If the Sabres make a push and find a championship in that time or if the Amerks rebound in coming seasons into AHL relevance once again will all affect how fans across the Niagara Frontier, Genesee River Valley, and Southern Tier approach their hockey fanhood. Whichever combination of pushes happen, we may have an answer to what the Pegula’s deeper strategy is before any of that transpires. Only time will now tell what the result of the WNY border wars will be.

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