When Terry Pegula formally announces the Buffalo Sabres' purchase of the Rochester Americans AHL franchise and officially begins a new era of Amerks hockey, the phones should be ringing off the hook at the Blue Cross Arena box office for the 2011-12 season opener.
Ask any hockey fan in the Rochester area if they've been to an Amerks game lately, and most will reply "I used to go all the time when the Sabres were there." And that makes sense.
The three season partnership with Florida produced one playoff appearance that ended abruptly when the Amerks were ousted in seven games by the first-year Calgary Flames affiliate Abbotsford Heat.
The ouster was a real disappointment to owner Curt Styres and his hockey operations staff that included "Mr. Amerk" Jody Gage and former NHL player and coach Ted Nolan. They worked diligently to stock the Amerks with AHL stars such as Graham Mink, Jeff Taffe, Jamie Johnson, Rory Fitzpatrick and Clay Wilson to help offset the lack of substance provided by the Panthers' brutal drafting through the early 2000s.
Last season, with new hockey management in Florida led by Stanley Cup-winning GM Dale Tallon, their hands were tied, as Florida took the ever-so-tedious approach of using their AHL affiliate to strictly develop prospects rather than win. As a result, Rochester fell right back to the bottom of the Western Conference and attendance plummeted with them.
So in comes Buffalo, coming off back-to-back-to-back seasons featuring Red Garrett award winners (AHL rookie of the year) in Portland (Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis and Luke Adam) as well as playoff appearances in each of the three seasons Sabres' prospects played in Portland.
The recent success has been there, and although none of those Portland teams featured an abundance of AHL veterans, the prospect crop was deep enough to carry the team each year. With the blue chippers ready to move up, Amerks fans have to hope that Pegula is willing to open his wallet at least a little bit to help take the weight off of highly-touted prospects such as Zack Kassian, and reassure the fickle Rochester fans that he's here to win.
But to spend money, the Amerks must make money, and nostalgia and the idea of watching kids develop and then advance to Buffalo will only go so far before attendance dwindles again. So the city of Rochester needs to show their support at the gate.
A lot has changed in the city since the Calder Cup-winning year of 1996 and the runner-up efforts of 1999 and 2000. Kodak is a shell of itself and more jobs have left than been created, but many affordable mini-plans exist and single game tickets remain well below league average.
This is the last chance for the franchise—the second oldest in the league behind Hershey—and there is no reason to fail. The turnout to hear Pegula, Ted Black and Darcy Regier speak at 11 a.m. Wednesday should give an indication as to whether Rochester still is indeed a "hockey town" or if time has passed the Flower City by.
The Sabres have opened their wallet for you Rochester, now it's your chance to do the same.