#AHLOTB: Amerks Assist Week lets team give back

by Warren Kosel and Rob Crean | AHL On The Beat Archive

There’s nothing more gratifying than giving the gift of happiness through an act of kindness. It’s pure, it’s genuine and it far exceeds any monetary value because happiness is truly priceless. That was the underlying theme for the Rochester Americans this past week as the organization and its various members joined forces for the third annual Amerks Community Assist Week, which ran from Monday, Nov. 2 through Saturday, Nov. 7.

Modeled after a program launched by the Buffalo Sabres in 2013, the extensive community initiative involves players, coaches and team officials alike supporting a variety of different non-profit organizations and community outreach programs throughout the greater Rochester area. Most importantly, however, it’s an opportunity to give back and be part of something other than the game of hockey.

The week-long endeavor got underway on Monday afternoon when Amerks defensemen Brady Austin and Matt Prapavessis joined rookie forwards Nick Baptiste and Justin Bailey at the CDS Monarch facility in Webster. The visit featured an in-depth tour of the facility, which specializes in providing services for people with varying intellectual and developmental disabilities, and culminated in a spirited floor hockey game between the Amerks and Monarchs.

“Having the Amerks here meant so much to our guys,” said Mark Curletta, executive vice president of operations for CDS Monarch. “A lot of the individuals here are big Amerks fans. They go to a lot of the games and to have the guys come out and play with them, I can see just it on their faces how happy and excited they are.”

CDS Monarch assists people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, veterans, and seniors to live and thrive in their communities, by delivering high-quality, personalized life planning and transition support. CDS Monarch is a world-class organization providing opportunities so the people it serves can lead independent and fulfilling lives in their community.

CDS Monarch began with a group of parents whose goal was to ensure quality services would always be available for their children, no matter their ages. These parents joined together to form Continuing Developmental Services, Inc. (CDS), a non-for-profit, private organization, now known as CDS Monarch. CDS Monarch was incorporated in 1977 and opened its first community residence in August of 1978. Today, its main objective is to fulfill transitional and employment needs of more than 1,700 people with developmental disabilities and their families through the Life Transitions program, Warrior Salute™ service, a CDS Monarch Senior Living division, and Unistel, a subsidiary of CDS Monarch. CDS Monarch is guided by the belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to lead a productive, fulfilling life with quality and choice of services.

Tuesday’s outing featured the ever-popular and highly competitive ball hockey game between the Amerks and student-athletes at Holy Childhood. The annual game, now in its fourth straight year, saw the Holy Childhood Tigers remain unbeaten with a 10-9 shootout win over an Amerks contingent that included forwards Phil Varone and Matt Garbowsky and defensemen Chad Ruhwedel, Matt Donovan, Colby Robak and Jerome Leduc.

Varone and Ruhwedel, the only two returnees from last year’s event, provided most of the scoring while Leduc manned the pipes for the Amerks in front of a capacity crowd at the Holy Childhood gymnasium.

“I thought we played well as a team, but each year we come back it seems like they always get a little better,” said Varone. “It’s always competitive and a lot of fun. This year was the first in four years we took them to the shootout, so that’s a plus. Maybe next year we’ll get the win.”

For more than 65 years, Holy Childhood, a non-denominational, non-profit agency, has enriched the lives of people with developmental disabilities. Dedicated to serving its students in an atmosphere of dignity and compassion, the school’s mission is to prepare children and adults with developmental disabilities for maximum independence and integration in the community through individualized programs and services, in keeping with the philosophy and vision of the school’s founders.

“All of us at Holy Childhood, students, adults and staff alike, look forward to the Amerks Community Assist Week and the Amerks’ annual visit for the highly-anticipated floor hockey game,” said Holy Childhood public relations manager Laurie Otto. “Everyone has such a great time whether they’re playing hockey or cheering on both teams. We especially appreciate the players spending time after the game to visit and sign autographs for our students and adults.  It’s a wonderful event; we’re looking forward to next year!”

On Wednesday, it was on to the Golisano Children’s Hospital as Patrick Kaleta, Jerry D’Amigo, Jason Akeson, Jack Nevins, Justin Kea and Justin Bailey paid a visit to the Play Deck.

Equipped with knee hockey sticks and nets, the players spent the afternoon knocking the ball around with patients. Bailey spent much of his time in net as kids took their turns shooting and scoring on him. At one point, several hospital administrators stopped to look through the glass walls and watch the action as the Amerks played hockey with the kids.

Not all of the patients at Golisano Children’s Hospital were able to leave their rooms, so staff members took Kaleta and Kea to one floor while D’Amigo and Akeson went to another floor to visit kids individually in their rooms in an attempt to bring smiles to their faces.

“To come here, play hockey with kids and visit with them, doing whatever we can to put a smile on their faces really puts things in perspective,” said Kaleta.

“We are extremely grateful to the Amerks for coming up to the hospital to play with our kids.  The kids had a great time playing knee hockey, talking with the players, having their photos taken with the players, and even taking away little hockey sticks,” said Stephanie Sheets, assistant director of community affairs for Golisano Children’s Hospital. “One of the patients I later saw in the hallway with a stick was beaming from ear to ear because of the time the players took with them on the play deck and the stick they got to leave with. They made a difference in the lives of several kids today.”

Golisano Children’s Hospital and the Rochester community have joined together to give every child the best possible chance to enjoy a healthy, happy life. The new, dedicated children’s hospital provides the setting and the expertise so that children and their families are not forced to leave Rochester for care.

“For us to take time out of our day just to do something other than for ourselves, there’s no better feeling," added D’Amigo. “We are doing stuff for other people. I think that’s big for us as professional athletes. We have to give back to the community because they do so much for us."

Thursday marked the return of the Amerks Reading Power Play Program presented by Wendy’s. The popular program, now in its 11th year, teams Amerks players with local librarians in support of reading and education. The 2015-16 edition got off to its best start yet in recent years as Kaleta, a long-time participant in the program, ushered in another season of reading in front of a packed house at the newly renovated Fairport Library.

Kaleta read "Z is for Zamboni," a classic hockey children’s book, to the kids, before giving a hockey equipment demonstration as one lucky fan got to dress up in full game-issued Amerks gear. The visit also featured an appearance by the Moose, a raffle for autographed sticks and, most importantly, a personal message from Kaleta on the importance of reading.

The program rewards kids for reading and selects two grand-prize winners that will win suite tickets and a special postgame meet-and-greet after Rochester’s home game on Sunday, Feb. 21 against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Using the hat trick as an educational incentive, youth participants fill out a form for every three books they read, which then qualifies them for an entry into the grand prize drawing. The Amerks Reading Program will continue with various appearances throughout Monroe County through January.

The success of the program is a direct result of the longstanding partnership between the Amerks and Monroe County Library System as well as the commitment to reading. Since the program’s inception, more than 500 books have been read per year by kids in grades K-6 while there’s also been a welcomed increase in participation from students at the high school level.

“On behalf of the Monroe County Library System, we are thrilled to once again be partnering with the Rochester Americans to provide the Reading Power Play program for the 11th year in a row!” said Fairport children’s librarian and Monroe County Library System representative Amy Joslyn. “This is a terrific incentive to get kids reading while it also brings families into the library in support of reading and literacy. These visits provide children with a chance to see some of their “local heroes” who not only relay the importance of reading, but of the importance of following your dreams and giving back to the community! It’s a wonderful program and we are thrilled to partner with such a generous organization!”

While Kaleta was visiting with kids in Fairport on Thursday, defenseman Chad Ruhwedel joined members of the Amerks front office in attendance at the Veterans Outreach Center Stars & Stripes Celebration at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center. Veterans Outreach Center has been serving the veterans, and their families, of the Greater Rochester region for over 40 years. This event offers the opportunity to commemorate our local heroes, the men and women of our Armed Forces who have served, as well as those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation.

The cause hits close to home for Ruhwedel, whose father is a veteran who served 24 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. The Amerks defenseman was proud to represent his team at the Stars & Stripes Celebration to pay his respects to our nation’s armed forces.

“They’re putting their lives on the line every day. We’re very fortunate enough to be out here playing a game for a living. Their jobs are a lot more serious than ours. They don’t always get as much as praise, but I think they deserve all the respect in the world,” said Ruhwedel.

The front office staff was back at it bright and early on Friday morning to prepare breakfast for residents of the Ronald McDonald House. French toast, pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, yogurt and a variety of pastries were the order of the day as residents were able to grab a hearty breakfast before handling much more serious matters at hand.

Established in 1990, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Rochester provides a “home away from home” each year for families of critically injured and seriously ill children and supports programs that improve the health, education and wellbeing of children.

Later that night, the Amerks partnered with the Veterans Outreach Center to host their annual Military Appreciation Night when they hosted the Binghamton Senators at The Blue Cross Arena. As part of the festivities, the Amerks offered all United States military veterans, retired, active duty, reserve and National Guard service members two complimentary tickets to the Military Appreciation Night game. The team wore special military-themed jerseys during pregame warm-ups as a tribute to U.S. Armed Forces that were autographed and auctioned off in the arena during the game. Proceeds from the jersey auction, as well as from the sale of special Military Appreciation Night mystery pucks, were also donated to Veterans Outreach Center. 

The week-long campaign wrapped up on Saturday as the Amerks once again took the ice in support of USA Hockey’s Try Hockey For Free Day at various local ice rinks to close out Community Assist Week. As part of Saturday’s nationwide initiative, USA Hockey and participating programs encouraged kids ages 4 to 9 to go to a local participating rink and try youth hockey as part of the NHL’s Come Play Hockey Month.

While the Moose and Amerks staff stopped by Thomas Creek and Lakeshore in the morning, Garbowsky and Prapavessis surprised kids at Scottsville Ice Arena by joining them on the rink. They helped beginners learn to skate, shoot and pass while making sure the kids all had fun during their first-ever ice hockey experience. 

“The Amerks are proud to be a part of the fabric of Rochester and we appreciate the opportunity to remain active members in our community,” said Amerks vice president of business operations Rob Kopacz. “The annual Community Assist Week not only allows us to contribute to all the various programs Rochester has to offer, but it also gives our players, coaches and staff a chance to make a personal and lasting impact with those outside our organization. It’s about making others happy and I think we achieved that this past week.”