Sitting Down With Steve Donner of the Rochester Americans

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Sitting Down With Steve Donner of the Rochester Americans

On Saturday afternoon Steve Donner took some time to sit down with a group fans in the middle of August in the Amerks locker room to discuss the past and future of the team.  It was a great opportunity for everyone, how often does an owner/president/whatever his role is now sit down with fans to discuss hockey.  The discussion was enlightening and brought back a sense of optimism after the worst season in Amerks’ history.

All topics were touched on from the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, the affiliation, new ownership, money, veterans, leadership, coaches, pride, tradition, politics, advertising, marketing, concessions, jerseys, radio, and even the television broadcasts.  I’ll break things down into categories and still hope all of this information is not all over the place.

Affiliation

The discussion of who wanted to be a sole affiliate and who wanted the dual has gone back and forth for some time.  The Buffalo Sabres were right in saying they wanted to be the sole affiliate with the Amerks and even wanted a long term agreement, the catch was that they could then bring in a sub affiliate that they controlled.  So, technically they would have been the sole affiliate.  More on that very soon.

That is how it worked out the first year with the Sabres, Panthers, and Amerks.  The Sabres entered into an agreement with the Panthers to also supply Rochester with players.  The Buffalo Sabres said they would be supplying 12 players, once a player was injured or even called up they would not be replacing them.

The second year came around and Panthers were again willing to be a dual affiliate but only if it was controlled by the Amerks, not the Sabres.  The Florida Panthers also stated that they wanted to start playing a bigger role, but admitted to taking a couple more years to getting prospects to where they wanted them.  The Florida Panthers also stated that they were interested in becoming the sole affiliate in two years, which is where we are today.

That same season Steve Donner had said to Larry Quinn that he wanted to get the Sabres back into becoming the sole affiliate of the Amerks.  It was something that had lasted for such a long time that it seemed to be the best for both teams.  Larry Quinn stated that they would be willing, but the agreement would also allow the Sabres to bring in a “sub affiliate,” contradictory to being a “sole” affiliate.  The agreement from the Sabres also would have provided no guarantee to providing “veteran leadership.”  They provided proof of other affiliation agreements (Columbus/Syracuse, Boston/Providence, Washington/Hershey) in which there are no guarantees of paid veterans.  The difference is that those teams are committed to providing a winning environment and understand the need for leadership.

That was probably the ultimate downfall of the 07/08 season, a lack of peer leadership in the locker room.

The Rochester Americans had two choices for an NHL affiliate for the 08/09 season, the Florida Panthers or the Buffalo Sabres.  For obvious reasons many fans think/wanted the Sabres around, but the Panthers were the better option in regards to restoring a winning atmosphere.

Over the past couple of seasons the Amerks had become more about the Sabres than the Amerks.  The Western New York area has become regionalized in just about every way, especially in regards to the Buffalo Sabres.  The Sabres were more concerned about developing there prospects and marketing the Sabres instead of providing a winning environment that would then help prospects develop faster and then improve the marketing capabilities.

Long story short, the Florida Panthers know the pressure is on them and they are committed to success.  The Panthers aren’t a NHL team that anyone is expecting to win a Stanley Cup anytime soon, but it’s also a team that needs to improve to make sure it is stable in the years to come.  It all starts at the development level rather than dumping cash on free agents.  The Panthers are also going to be willing to make mid season adjustments if needed to improve the Amerks.

The affiliation agreement does have items written into it that would allow the Amerks to break the affiliation, details weren’t given but it comes down to winning.  If that doesn’t happen, the Amerks will have the right to look elsewhere (even though the pickings are slim for affiliations).

Nothing can be as bad as last year, can it?

Ownership

Very few people really believed that the magical investor existed for much of the season, but he really did.  Curt Styres was committed to buying the team In September 2007, and willing to get everything settled quickly.  As we all know, it didn’t work out that way.  Many of the other partners involved dragged there feet to prevent it from happening, even went as far as filing the lawsuit hoping to have the courts take control of the team.

Through everything, the Sabres continued to more or less try and steal the Amerks.  They did so by putting the City of Rochester against Steve Donner, at one point the City had said that the Buffalo Sabres were the most important part about the Amerks (which is ridiculous…where is the Amerk pride Duffy?).

Donner did say that had the Sabres put a pile of cash in front of him before all of this started to happen in late 2007, he probably would have seriously considered the offer.  It turns out that it is great it never happened.  From a business stand point, all the Sabres cared about was using the Amerks to keep players before they were called up as needed, sharing the team with someone else, and to market the Sabres to Rochester.  Nothing included creating a winning atmosphere.

In the end it’s a great thing things have worked out the way that they did for one big reason, Curt Styres and his partners are willing to spend money to improve business, Tom Golisano as we all know does not spend money.

Marketing/Advertising/Promotions

Continuing on the topic of spending money, we should all expect bigger game night promotions and general marketing of the team.  In the coming weeks a billboard campaign will start in advertising the Rochester Americans.  The amount of money that has been spent on the billboard campaign alone is two thirds of last years total advertising budget.

The budget has been increased for the Amerks.com web site to be improved and provide more content.  You guys looking for any extra help?  Will work for beer on game nights!

The amount of money being spent on opening night promotions is along the lines of what an NHL team would spend.  Exact details weren’t disclosed, but hopefully it’ll all be enough to lure fans in from that other teams opening night down the thruway.

They are also expected to spend more money every home game in providing better promotional giveaways.  Anything is better than the UPS Delivery of the game.

Veterans and Leadership

The veteran aspect really comes down to money.  Player salaries aren’t cheap, and even with money being thrown around players still have no interest of being in the AHL.  They’d rather go overseas to make more money and play in a more prominent league.

Last seasons mess may not have been completely avoidable, but if there had a real leader in the locker room then chances are we wouldn’t have seen such horrible post game interviews in which players seemed to laugh off getting destroyed on the ice.  The coaches could only do so much, without peer leadership it was a downward spiral.

Now, some will say that the Sabres reportedly gave the Amerks a break on money that was owed.  The financial situation was tight last year.  There wasn’t any extra money.  That is the bottom line.

Moving forward, the Florida Panthers are looking to provide a “mature” team.  As stated above, getting quality players to committ to wanting to play in the AHL isn’t an easy thing to do.  The Florida Panthers understand that peer leadership is needed on the ice and is feeling the pressure to make sure they provide that.

A real weak point of last years team was goaltending.  We were all hoping for a “veteran” goaltender to be signed to lead the team, but disappointed when that goalie was Chris Beckford-Tseu.  A type of player that we had hoped for would have cost too much.  It’s hoped that Beckford-Tseu will be the diamond in the rough that no one had expected.  He is considered to have been the #1 depth goalie that was available at the AHL level.  Many scouts believe he could be a starting goalie in the coming years in the NHL.  He was also being pursued by seven other teams, and he was signed to play here.

The idea of the Amerks signing there own players is not something that is out of the question.  At this time though we all need to trust and respect that Florida is committed to Rochester and restoring pride and winning.

Coaches

When asked about who the new head coach will be, the only thing we know is that it will not be anyone that has ever been associated with the Rochester Americans.  When the coach is announced it was said that a lot of fans will cock there head and say, “who?”  The fact that whoever this coach was enticed enough to leave his current position says something positive for the on ice product that will be available for him to coach.

There has always been a tradition of the Rochester Americans in having a head coach that was at some point part of the organization, a way to continue with the pride of the team.  Because the new coach won’t be filling that role, it was requested that the assistant fit that role.  Which is where we may see Jason Cipolla return behind the bench.

Many people seemed to dislike Cipolla, but having watched many practices last season he seemed like a coach that was always pushing the players and working with them.  He was also one of the last people off the ice each time.

Just as we can expect changes to the player roster mid season, the same can be said about the coaching staff if it starts to fail.

We should expect a new head coach to be announced this week.

Jerseys

There may be a third blue jersey this season, but also expect the same jerseys from last year.  Heading into the 2009/2010 season we should expect new jerseys that bring back the piping around the bottom of the jerseys.  The Amerks had been told last season that they couldn’t be done, which turned out to be false as other teams had jerseys designed that way.

Don’t expect any type of Florida Panthers logo to be a part of the jersey either.  It was brought up in discussions, but never seriously considered.  A Panthers logo may appear on helmets or possibly elsewhere on equipment, but not on the jerseys.  This team is the Rochester Americans, not the young Florida Panthers or the young Sabres as they had become better known as in recent years.

Arena Improvements

A new sound system is planned for the arena, as well as a new marquee.  The front offices are also being completely renovated.  Some people might wonder why the front offices matter, it just shows they’re trying to create a more “big league” atmosphere rather than a bunch of cubicles.

TV & Radio

Time Warner cable has created better links between Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Albany so there’s good hope that we may see more live road games on TV this season.

We discussed a possible pre or post game show on the radio.  It’s not very likely any type of pre game show would air due to having to purchase radio time and work around existing programming.  If you’ve ever listened to the post game show you know how painful it can be.  Last season it was always about the Sabres, and with the Sabres now out of town it’ll probably be comparing what “could have been.”  If you’re reading this Craig Schaller, make the post game show about Amerks hockey only!

One idea that was floated around is a possible live post game call in show on TV.  It’d require building a small studio inside of the arena, and hope that there would be fan interest.  That seemed to be more like a dream than anything else.  It’d be great to be able to hang out after games in the lobby above the escalators talking hockey, interviews, highlights, etc.

Having more road games live on TV is going to be a great start more than anything.

Improved Schedule/Divisions

Half way through any season you’ll often hear people saying, “we’re playing [insert team name] AGAIN?”  The curent AHL schedule format leaves a lot to be desired.  The divisions don’t seem to make much sense, and the same teams play the same teams over and over again.

Nothing is going to change in the immediate future due to the number of New England teams being larger in number to not want to change anything.  What will need to happen for any change is the AHL expanding further into the west.  There is a movement by western NHL teams wanting teams closer to them.  Change may be on the horizon within the next two years.

The Role of Steve Donner

Of all current employee’s of the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans, Steve Donner has been around the longest.  He believes in the pride and tradition of the Rochester Americans.  Some people may think he hasn’t made the best business decisions at times, but one thing is for certain, he cares about the Amerks team, he loves hockey, and he knows what’s needed to restore the pride and tradition.

Only time will tell what his role is going to be.

Winning and Entertaining

That is all that needs to happen, the team needs to win.  When any team of any sport is winning people become interested.  The die hard fans will always be around, like last season, but winning will fill the rest of those empty seats.  Once the team is successful on the ice again, all of this will be tucked away in the history books and we will have all moved on.

Not only does a team need to win, it also needs to be entertaining.  No one wants to see a boring team win games with low scoring and no action.  All parties involved understand this pressure.

Thanks for making it through all of this, please leave comments, disagreements, or questions you may have about anything!  I believe I covered everything, but there may be holes in the stories that need to be filled in, but after proof reading this a few times it all makes sense to me.

Thanks again to Steve Donner for sitting down with a bunch of fans in the middle of summer.  How often does management of a hockey team do that with fans?

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