Amerks welcome home Fitzpatrick

by Warren Kosel || AHL On The Beat Archive

fitzpatrick_200.jpgAre you familiar with the phrase “change is good”? Although many fear the idea of change, the feeling is quite the contrary for the Rochester Americans hockey club. In fact, the concept is being welcomed with open arms.

As the Amerks take the ice for their 53rd season in the American Hockey League, they do so with a new owner, coaching staff and National Hockey League affiliation and a roster of both new and familiar faces. But the biggest change of them all, thanks in part to the Florida Panthers, is that the Amerks will once again have a strong veteran presence as defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick makes his return to his hometown team.

The Rochester native signed a two-year deal with the Panthers on July 3 but is expected to spend most of his time with the Amerks assisting in the development of the young players.

“It’s a great feeling to be home again and put the Amerks crest back on,” said Fitzpatrick about his homecoming. “I had a great experience the first time around when I was here earlier in my career and I look to get the same experience again.”

The Fitzpatrick family could not be happier either. His wife, Tracey; daughter, Hannah; and sons, Brady, Rory and Conner, each get a bit of a homecoming as well.

“The kids are excited to come home and see all their friends they haven’t seen in a while and that’s one of the toughest things to go through when you’re that young,” said Fitzpatrick. “As a player you can end up anywhere in this business. I’ve been with several organizations which mean several moves and my wife and kids have not complained once. They have been nothing but supportive and I’m very happy to give them the opportunity to come back to the place where they grew up.”

The 33-year-old blueliner joins the Panthers’ organization after splitting the 2007-08 season with the Philadelphia Flyers and Philadelphia Phantoms. In 19 games at the NHL level, Fitzpatrick recorded one assist and 11 penalty minutes while picking up five points (1g, 4a) and 24 PIM in 19 AHL contests before missing the rest of the season with a sports hernia injury.

Prior to his one-year stint in Philadelphia, Fitzpatrick spent the 2006-07 season on the blue line with the Vancouver Canucks, collecting seven points (1+6) and 46 PIM in 58 games. Fitzpatrick finished third in All-Star Game voting for defensemen in the Western Conference with 550,177 votes, falling 23,000 votes shy of second place Nicklas Lidstrom, winner of five Norris Trophies and four Stanley Cups.

A resident of nearby Irondequoit, N.Y., Fitzpatrick makes his way back to the Amerks after spending parts of three seasons (2001-03, 2004-05) registering 10 goals and 20 assists for 30 points in 121 games in the red, white and blue. In addition to being a key component of the Rochester defense, this season he will also serve another purpose – veteran leadership.

“It’ll be a minor challenge for me being the oldest member of the team, but at the same time I’m also very excited about the opportunity to help develop the younger guys,” said Fitzpatrick about his new role.

“I have plenty of experience with many organizations and a lot of knowledge that I hope I can pass onto the younger players,” added Fitzpatrick. “I want to be able to lead by example and be someone the players can learn from, other than someone in a coaching or management position. The players need to know that I’m here for them.”

Being a father of four, one would think his “father-like” influence could only contribute to his ability to interact with the players and further the development of the younger group.

“Well, I don’t want to refer to myself as a father to them because it would make me seem old,” said Fitzpatrick with a smile. “I don’t want to come across too fatherly because I am their teammate, but I do want to make myself available to them. I want the guys to feel comfortable approaching me with questions, but more importantly, I want to help the younger players get to the next level.

During the 2001-02 season, Fitzpatrick made history as he became the first Rochester native to score a goal for the Amerks. In the playoffs, he led all Rochester defensemen in postseason points and was tied for third on the team. Fitzpatrick finished his first season with the Amerks with 12 points (4+8) in 60 games and was named the co-winner of the McCulloch Trophy for his service to the Rochester community. He also made his Buffalo Sabres debut that season, picking four PIM while appearing in five games.

The veteran defenseman recorded his best season in Rochester the following year, notching 16 points (5g, 11a) in 41 games while skating in 36 games with Buffalo. After playing the entire 2003-04 season with the Sabres, Fitzpatrick completed his third stint in Rochester in 2004-05, registering two points (1g, 1a) in 20 games.

After spending the past four seasons with various clubs, Fitzpatrick sees his return to the Amerks as an opportunity to restore the pride and tradition in Rochester; something the storied franchise is widely known for in its 53-year history. The Amerks enter this season after a last place finish with a league-worst 24 wins and 56 points.

“The biggest obstacle I think the entire organization faces, both on and off the ice, is moving on from last season. I personally want to have a strong season and see a lot of ice time, but as a team we need to play with a collective mindset that we will be competing in the playoffs at the close of the regular season,” said Fitzpatrick in regards to the 2008-09 campaign.

“We need to make it a priority to go out every night and compete on the ice to win our fair share of games, increase our presence out in the community and continue to have pride in ourselves and the organization,” added Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick’s return to Rochester is certainly one to look forward to, however this time around, it’s one that come with much more responsibility. He was appointed team captain by new head coach Benoit Groulx two days before the Amerks opened their season.

“To be successful, you not only have to have talent, but show every day what it takes to be successful," Groulx said. "He’s a role model for our young guys and he leads by example.”

"It’s a huge honor," said Fitzpatrick about joining the storied list of names who donned the “C” in Rochester franchise history. “It’s an honor to have it on your jersey but it was something that I was going to probably have a lot of leadership and a lot of say around the locker room even if I wasn’t chosen. But you know it’s the same job for me whether I’m the captain or wasn’t the captain. I know the history here, the captains, and I’m truly honored by it.”

Fitzpatrick joins the likes of Dick Gamble, Al Arbour, Don Cherry, Jody Gage, Chris Taylor and Brandon Smith as the leader of their teams. He has worn an "A" as an alternate captain a few times in his career, including as an Amerk five years ago.

Originally drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the second-round (47th overall) in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, Fitzpatrick made his NHL debut during the 1995-96 season after spending the early part of the season with the Fredericton Canadiens of the AHL. Fitzpatrick tallied a pair of assists in 42 games for Montreal in his first spell at the NHL level.

During the 1994-95 season, Fitzpatrick made his professional debut with Fredericton in the postseason and helped lead the Baby Habs to the Calder Cup Finals. Before turning pro, Fitzpatrick served as a member of Team USA at the 1995 World Junior Championships.

In 287 career NHL games with Montreal, St. Louis, Nashville, Buffalo, Vancouver and Philadelphia, “Fitzy” has compiled 35 points (10g, 25a), as well as six points (1g, 5a) in 20 postseason contests. At the AHL level, Fitzpatrick has picked up 138 points (35g, 103a) in 384 career games with Fredericton, Worcester, Hamilton, Rochester and Philadelphia.

“I’m more than excited to be back here with the Amerks and in my hometown,” said Fitzpatrick. “There’s nothing like being part of an organization with such pride and tradition. There’s just something about being a Rochester American and I’m glad I’m back.”

Well, “Fitzy,” the feeling is mutual.