By DAVID ANDREATTA
A junior hockey game will be played in Rochester this weekend.
It has been some time since that could be said, and perhaps even longer since anyone much cared.
But the team taking the ice at the Rochester Ice Center in Fairport on Friday and Saturday has generated a buzz in local hockey circles, and team officials are hoping fans take notice of their promises of exciting hockey, promotions, and community spirit.
The team is the Rochester Jr. Americans — not to be confused with the youth hockey organization of the same name or the Rochester Americans, the professional minor-league affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League.
The players on this Rochester team are between those two disparate ends of the hockey spectrum. They are a bunch of hopefuls — teenagers and young adults — trying to work their way up the very steep hill of the sport.
This Rochester Jr. Americans is the newest franchise of the North American Hockey League, one of the top junior hockey leagues in the United States.
The Jr. Amerks kick off their 60-game season with a two-game homestand against the Philadelphia Rebels at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $7 apiece, and the team intends to donate ticket revenue to Foodlink as part of a “Hockey Fights Hunger” promotion.
“We want to be an integral part of this community from Day One,” said Kyle Cannillo, the team’s marketing director. “The action on the ice will be exciting and we want to match that in the stands.”
The junior hockey landscape in the United States stretches from Alaska to Florida and spans some 200 teams across nine leagues that offer prospects between the ages of 16 and 21 a place to play — if they can make it.
Of all of the leagues, the NAHL is considered second in caliber only to the elite United States Hockey League. Its players are typically those who couldn’t crack a lineup in the USHL or in one of that league’s three Canadian counterparts — the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League — which together represent the firmest stepping stones to the National Hockey League.
But those leagues aren’t the only stepping stones to the big time. Indeed, seven NAHL players were taken in the NHL Draft this year.
All of this background is to say that NAHL hockey is very good hockey.
Many of its players have already committed to play collegiate hockey at the Division 1 level. Most were identified by scouts and selected by their teams from a vast pool of prospects from across the United States and Canada. Their parents aren’t paying for them to play, aside from financing their room and board if they’re from out of town.
That doesn’t mean teams lack local talent. The Jr. Amerks, for instance, has a half dozen or so players from the Rochester area on the roster. Until now, most of them have had to look outside the region for opportunities to play at their highest level.
Francois Methot, the team’s coach and general manager and the director of hockey operations for the youth organization, has said the NAHL in Rochester gives the best young players in the area a chance to stay local.
They can stay when they’re not on the road, that is. The league’s teams travel extensively during the season.
The Jr. Amerks compete in the NAHL’s East Division, which includes the Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks, Johnstown Tomahawks, Maine Nordiques, Maryland Black Bears, New Hampshire Mountain Kings, New Jersey Titans, Northeast Generals, and Philadelphia Rebels.
THE ‘BUSINESS’ OF JUNIOR HOCKEY
The NAHL touts the fact that it is the oldest developmental league in the United States. But NAHL teams are businesses.
The Jr. Amerks are something of a side gig for its owners, Colleen Wegman, the chief executive officer of the Wegmans grocery chain, and her husband, financial investor Chris O’Donnell. The couple are longtime hockey parents who have two boys on the team with designs on playing for Division 1 colleges.
Cole O’Donnell is a 20-year-old goaltender who stands 6 feet 1 inch between the pipes and has announced his commitment to play at Sacred Heart University. His 18-year-old brother, Clay O’Donnell, is a 5-foot-11-inch center who has said he is committed to Mercyhurst University. The pair played at the private Berkshire School in Massachusetts last year.
It may be tempting to wonder whether the Jr. Amerks franchise will stick around after the O’Donnells move on. But the investments Wegman and O’Donnell are making in the team and its home rink, the Rochester Ice Center, suggest the team will outlast their sons’ playing days.
The couple owns the arena and, according to the NAHL, are spending $2 million on upgrades there that include private boxes, a party deck, additional seating to accommodate 1,000 fans (the current capacity is about 750), a video scoreboard, a lounge, and locker and equipment rooms.
“After exploring many junior hockey opportunities, we are thrilled with our decision to partner with the NAHL in establishing this new team in Rochester,” Chris O’Donnell said in a statement announcing the team.
Rochester has danced with junior hockey on a few occasions in the past. There were the Rochester Monarchs, the Rochester Stars, and an earlier iteration of the Rochester Jr. Americans. But fans were mostly wallflowers.
Then again, the caliber of those teams was lower and there was little hype around them. By contrast, the Jr. Amerks are promising a spectacle.
Cannillo, the team’s marketing director, said game-day theatrics include smoke machines and light shows with “a Las Vegas-style feel.” The promotional schedule includes two pre-game tailgates and various “theme” nights.
At the home-opener on Friday, fans will receive rally towels. On Saturday, they will get magnet schedules.
“Our goal is to have the place rowdy and chaotic every night,” Cannillo said.
WHO TO WATCH
As an expansion team, the Jr. Amerks will have their work cut out for them, although they managed a 2-1 pre-season win over their divisional rival Johnstown Tomahawks in Pennsylvania last week.
Here are a few players to watch.
DREW HAXTON — The Jr. Amerks are expecting a lot from their first-round draft pick, Drew Haxton. At 5 feet 9 inches, the forward from Rhode Island is relatively small in stature, but he is shifty and has junior hockey experience. Last season, he notched 17 points in 45 games for the Cowichan Valley Capitals of the British Columbia Hockey League. He is 20 years old and will likely be one of the oldest in the league. Haxton is looking to play Division 1 college hockey.
TYLER PROCIOUS — Tyler Procious is a familiar name in Rochester hockey circles. The 20-year-old defenseman and Pittsford native played his youth hockey in Rochester, and later Buffalo, before being taken in the USHL and OHL drafts. He spent the last four seasons with three USHL teams, and for a time captained the Waterloo Black Hawks. He status as a veteran who has played at the highest levels of junior hockey make him a natural mentor for younger players.
NOAH VOM SCHEIDT — Noah Vom Scheidt is a 6-foot-3-inch power forward who last year put up big numbers for the Renfrew Wolves of the Central Canada Hockey League, scoring 44 points in 54 games. The 19-year-old Canadian has had an excellent training camp, and announced his arrival to the Jr. Amerks with authority when he assisted on both his team’s goals in its pre-season 2-1 win over Johnstown.