Pause gives Amerks deeper appreciation for each other

Photo: Scott Thomas

by Suzie Cool | On The Beat

Exactly one year to the day of the Rochester Americans’ last game of the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if we were living in the movie Groundhog Day.

After a 4-2 win over the Utica Comets on March 10, 2021, at the Adirondack Bank Center, the Amerks were shut down due to COVID-19 protocols the very next morning.

It came as a shock to everyone, especially in the sense that this year is so untraditional that it’s difficult to determine where this could even stem from in the first place. Every few days the players, coaches and hockey staff are tested prior to walking into the Blue Cross Arena, there are plastic dividers keeping the players at a safe distance from each other in the locker room, coaches are masked at practice and games.

And that’s just the start. Keep in mind the seemingly endless list of team protocols that are strongly enforced daily to ensure the health and safety of everyone.

When first addressing the media over the mid-March situation that the Amerks faced, head coach Seth Appert simply said, “This was an unfortunate situation and it happened at no fault of our players.”

Appert then went on to add, “I do want to really make sure that we understand that our players have been nothing but exemplary in their on-ice work ethic and competitiveness, but also in their off-ice decision-making and habits.”

From March 11 on, there were five games postponed over the span of 16 days for Rochester; however, the first-year coach wanted it to be known that the organization wasn’t taking this lightly.

“We made the decisions that we made, in terms of postponing games, out of an abundance of caution and to avoid a situation where we had a mass spread,” said Appert.

As the Amerks made the right decision to suspend game play for a period of time, it was how they decided to take care of the serious situation that should be noted.

For the first four days after the original confirmed case, there was an immediate pause in any team activities within the organization. Players, coaches and staff were immediately urged to stay home, and this gave the players the chance for a mid-season reset of sorts.

This meant no hockey, no film, just a chance to relax and take in a couple of beautiful, sunny days in the Flower City. For the coaches, though, this gave them some extra time to look over film and dissect the players and team that they have at hand.

When all was good and there were no longer any positive tests, Rochester then began coming back to practice in small-group form. For two days, the team showed up to the rink in shifts of players that were closely associated with one another to begin getting back to “normal.”

Upon getting back to these small-group practices, Appert couldn’t have better things to say about the group of guys that he has on his team and their positive attitudes that they bring to the rink every single day.

“Our guys, like I said, have been fantastic. This has been such a great group to coach in their work ethic and their competitiveness, but also in the decisions they’re making and the attitude that they’ve come to the rink with every day.”

After a few of days of small-group practices, it was time for the Amerks to get back to full practice about a week after the initial shutdown. Once back, Rochester hit the ice skating and had competitive practices day in and day out, wanting to ensure that they were ready at any moment for when they got the chance to play again.

That quite possibly could be one of the most challenging parts of this season, making sure that the team comes together and can create the energy needed despite the untraditional antics of this year and the small number of games allotted on the Amerks’ schedule.

“We’ve found ways to have a lot of energy and a lot of positivity early on and some good results early on, despite not being able to do the normal things that you’d like to do as a team,” Appert said.

“We talk about it all the time, that these games this year are precious and they’re so valuable and they’re so important. We got so many young players here that need this development opportunity.”

Games this year are precious indeed and are providing players with the opportunity that might not have been possible within a traditional season.

Photo: Micheline Veluvolu

After the Amerks’ 16-day pause, they finally were able to get back into action at home against the Syracuse Crunch on March 26. With that contest, the Amerks embarked on a stretch of 22 games in 51 days to close out the 2020-21 campaign -– a challenge that each player seemed excited to face.

In a year of untraditional circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the Amerks’ last month and a half of play would be filled with three-game weeks and ample opportunity for individuals to make their mark in the American Hockey League. And although Rochester has overcome its first — and hopefully its only — COVID-19 situation of the season, the organization is still fully aware of how cautious it needs to continue to be.

While addressing the media, Appert stated, “I wouldn’t say that this has been a wakeup call, but it’s just another good reminder of how important all of the decisions we’re making are. Sometimes there’s things outside of your control that you just have to address and then move forward.”

If anything, this season has been more of a learning curve as to how the Amerks decision-making off the ice can affect what happens at the rink.

“I think that we all have learned, in this type of a year, that you have to be extremely flexible, and you have to be fluid with your decision-making. More than ever, the decisions we continue to make away from the rink impact our play and our ability to be at the rink.”

No matter what, though, the most important thing learned is that Rochester put the health and safety of its players, coaches and staff first. The Amerks have now been back in game action for a week and a half, have played three games over that span and everyone has safely returned back to the lineup.

Let’s take the time to acknowledge that as much as we all love the game of hockey, these players are human beings first and the organization showed that through how it handled adversity in an unfortunate circumstance.