Rochester : The Americans Minor League Sports Capitol

Growing up through my formative years in the “Flower City”, I was exposed to professional sports by some of the best 2nd tier leagues in the country. Rochester, N.Y., was one of the first “boom towns” in America. It was once on the cutting edge of technology in photography and photographic imaging. Three of the cities leading companies were KODAK, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb. That’s cameras, copiers and eye lenses.

But through my lenses, I witnessed the fever of the 1970 North American Soccer League championship. Until they were outspent and out priced by the star-studded New York Cosmos, they were the Empire State’s top footballers. Rochester has had soccer clubs competing at the top level in the USA since the early 1900’s.

Most recently, the Rochester Rhinos soccer team have won the US Open Cup in 1999 and 4 League titles.

The Rochester Red Wings baseball club was the pre-MLB home for such Hall of Famers as Bob Gibson and Stan Musial (Cardinals farm team) and  Cal Ripkin, Jr.  and Eddie Murray (Orioles farm team).

I spent many a cold spring day watch Ripkin battle it out with Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs in International League play.

The Red Wings are the cities oldest club, beginning play in 1899.

Organized hockey has been a staple in Rochester since the 1920’s. But one of the most stable minor league franchises in the AHL has been the Rochester Americans, or Amerks, as they are know by the home fans. They were awarded a team in 1956.

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Since 1956, they have played in the same building that has hosted acts from the Barnum & Bailey Circus to Elvis and Led Zepplin. The Rochester Community War Memorial (now Blue Cross Arena) was constructed with a full stage that faces the structure’s main floor. The same stage that threw out guitar picks from rock legends, also was prime picking ground to collect errand hockey pucks.  Those that ventured under the main stage might emerge with an official AHL stamped rubber disk.

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One of the many rescued game pucks from the stage of the Rochester War Memorial 

For hockey historians, the Rochester Amerks are a plethuera of personalities and legends. Located on the base of Lake Ontario, it is just a body of water separating it from Toronto, Canada. Their 1970’s soccer rivalry was as fierce if not as legendary as Celtic vs. Rangers in Scotland.

The winners of 6 Calder Cups, the pinnacle of the American Hockey League, the Amerks have been the launching pad or the parachute years for many well know players and coaches.

Rochester has been the arena for some of the most remembered netminders in hockey. Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers went on to heroics with the NHL Boston Bruins and Cleveland Barons of the WHA. Before he donned the famous “stitches” mask, he wore the American’s iconic shield.

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Gerry Cheevers retro hockey card as a Rochester Amerk

Other goalies have been journeymen. Like Robb Stauber, with whom I caught up with a decade later playing in the minors for Jacksonville of the SPHL.

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 Robb Stauber – hockey journeyman, goalie and all-around nice guy

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Buffalo’s Ryan Miller is probably the Amerk’s best known current alumni

The stops in Rochester for many hockey greats have been to pass on their knowledge and encouragement. Former Maple Leaf, Balckhawk and Canadiens Dick Gamble’s stay was to be temporary, yet resulted in election the AHL Hall of Fame. He won 3 Calder Cups (1965, ’66, ’68) as a player and held the club’s scoring records for almost 2 decades.

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1953 Stanley Cup winner Dick Gamble in the 1954 Topps hockey set

Gamble’s exploits were followed up as Rochester’s coach (1968-1970). His records were broken by perhps one of the best minor league stars ever – Jody Gage.

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Amerks All-Time Leading Scorer – Jody Gage

The list of NHL players cum AHL coaches is notable if not impressive. Formidable names include Joe Crozier, Mike Keenan and John Van Boxmeer. Amerks alumni Al Arbour led the New York Islanders to 4 Stanley Cup titles.  Vancouver Canuck’s current boss, John Tortorella also had a stint behind the bench at Rochester as well.

But few Amerks players went on to make a mark like the man they call “Grapes”, Don Cherry.

Don’s humble playing career swirled around the AHL and finally landed in Rochester. The end result for the patriotic Canadian, was calling the shots as head coach for the Americans. After 3 seasons, he was called up to do the same for the NHL Champion Boston Bruins. His antics, words and personality have become part of hockey folklore.

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Without jacket and pitbull – Don Cherry – Rochester American

The Rochester Americas continue to turn out NHL talent and have played an even had a larger role as the neighboring Buffalo Sabres were once owned by a Rochester native. Several Sabre’s home games have been hosted at the War Memorial. And the local support of the businesses has kept the franchise financially equitable.

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Local Rochester lumber company, 2005 Chase-Pickens, 50th Anniversary set

Rochester fans are in the certainty that they will see memorable sports moments as long as they have a team.