MEMORIES OF THE OLD AHL

"We're a bus league." So spoke AHL President Jack Butterfield at the beginning of the 1993-94 season, in his anual interview with "Hockey Ink."

Personally, I prefer a bus-league. The players aren't over-paid prima-donnas. You don't see their logos in every clothing-store chain. They play in middle-sized to quaint arenas where you can get a great view without taking out a second mortgage. I'll take a bus league any day, as long as I don't have to ride the bus myself.

I began following the Rochester Americans in 1960-61. I was nine years old, four years older than the club itself. The team had been named in memory of the old NHL New York Americans, and also in distinction from the first parent club: the Montreal Canadiens, (replaced almost immediately by Toronto.) I remember going to my first game with a scout troop. Come to think of it, we had a mediocre scout troup, and this was the best event of the year. We saw the Amerks defeat the green-clad Quebec Aces, 6-1. A week later, my father met Amerk star Dick Gamble and invited him over to our house for dinner. We were Amerk loyalists from that point on.

I quickly became hooked on radio hockey, Bill Givens doing the play-by-play. Buffalo was the arch-rival, and they always seemed a step ahead of us. Bill Sweeney was leading the Springfield Indians to three straight Calder Cups. The Cleveland Barons were the dirtiest team, and the Hershey Bears were cool enough to become my second favorite. Providence was the league doormat.

But in 1962-63, the league was suddenly different. Baltimore and Pittsburgh joined, Providence got good, Springfield got bad, and Rochester started building a better team. It took a couple years to get past Cleveland, but by the time I was in 8th grade, the Amerks actually won the Calder Cup! And then they won it again the next year. Joe Crozier was the coach. Top defensemen were Don Cherry, Steve Kraftcheck, Daryl Sly, Duane Rupp and Al Arbour (who "innovatively" layed his stick horizontally to block shots). Forwards included high-scoring Dick Gamble, Bronco Horvath, Gerry Ehman, Daryl Draper, and the Amerks most notorious scrapper: Norm "Red" Armstrong. What Norm lacked in skill, he made up for in hustle, and he'd stand up to anyone. He became the first Amerk to have his jersey retired (#6). I'd say he symbolizes the character of the club. Oh yes, the goalies of the glory years were Gerry Cheevers and balding Bobby Perrault. The Pittsburgh Hornets ended Rochester's reign in 66-67, but the Amerks came back to claim their third cup in four years, during 67-68. I read "The Hockey News" like it was a letter from a distant but familiar planet.

Up to that point, the NHL had just six teams. Anybody who knows NHL history knows they weren't really the "original six" (NY Americans, Montreal Maroons, and many others had come and gone), but since the NHL was stuck on six for 25 years, the other teams must have faded from people's memories. With just six major league teams, there was plenty of talent left in the AHL. People still theorize that the Indians of 1961 or the Amerks of 1966 could have beaten NHL clubs. I read that Springfield did scrimmage Boston in pre-season, and beat 'em 9-1. When the NHL expanded, the quality of play in the AHL sufferred only marginally, but there was no more claiming that our teams could beat anybody. Joe Crozier went west to Vancouver, and took our good players. The Amerks became the Canucks farm team, Dick Gamble coaching. The team went from great to last, and I went off to college.

When I returned from school in 1973, the league was different again. There were twelve teams, including one miserable club called the Richmond Robins. I saw the Amerks drub them 14-2. The Cleveland Barons had moved to Jacksonville, and even though I hated Cleveland, that still didn't seem right. Nova Scotia and Cincinnati (coached by Joe Crozier) were the class of the league. Worse yet, the WHA began, and the level of play in the AHL was visibly down. Still, Rochester had some bright stars. The top Amerks were Barry Merrell, Gordie Clark, Murray Kuntz, Chico Drolet (former Quebec Ace) and Art Stratton. Stratton played just one season here, but he was the most memorable player for me. His passing skills were incredible. The former Springfield/Buffalo player was one of the first to wear a helmet, but I think he had a system of mirros in there, or something. He could see everyone on the ice, in front or behind, and hit them tape-to-tape in stride. I can barely skate myself, but I think I could have scored twenty goals if I played on his line. (Especially if we played Richmond.)

I dated my wife during the Boston-fed years. The Amerks were locked in a deadly duel for the top with the hated (and stacked) Nova Scotia Voyaguers. My relationship with Cindy had a much happier ending than the Amerks did with NS, as the Voyaguers kept denying the Amerks the championship. When the Maine Mariners joined up, and finally knocked out the Voyaguers, I was thankful. The Indians of Springfield became a sentimental favorite, as they battled each year to escape the cellar. I was delighted when they won the Cup in 1975. But the league started shrinking: from 12 to 10 to 8 to five, until Providence decided at the last minute to stay in for the 76-77 campaign. The Indians escaped last that year by defeating the Reds on the final weekend.

At that point, the AHL made the necessary adjustments to survive. They snuggled up to the NHL like never before, in an effort to provide the best possible development program. Fewer veterans, lotsa rookies, and fresh money. It worked. In the 80's and 90's, the league grew again. They came to town from Newfoundland, Cape Breton, Moncton, and other exotic arctic points. The great Binghamton Ranger Wars were a highlight, especially since Rochester always got the last laugh in the playoffs. With my wife by my side, we enjoyed the likes of Peter Czavaglia, Todd Simon, and many many others. Cindy and I travlled to Springfield to watch the Indians rule two Calder Cups in '90 and '91. (I won't tell you who we cheered for.) We also attended "Jack Butterfield Night" in Springfield when he finally retired as AHL President.

The Buffalo Sabres came to town during my child-bearing years. As my kids grew, we went on road trips, rooting for the Amerks in places like Syracuse, Hamilton, and Adirondack. My daughter an I saw the last AHL game ever played in Utica. Beginning twelve years ago, my son and I make at least one trip each season. We've driven to Hershey, Wilkes-Barre, Binghamton, Hartford, Springfield, Worcester, Lowell, Hamilton, Albany, and most recently Portland. (The latter became a must when the Sabres moved their farm club there.)

At this writing, the AHL has thirty teams, matching up 1-for-1 with the NHL. Now they come to town from Peoria, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, and other western points. (Some are even from states instead of cities: Iowa, Texas, Manitoba.) But my favorites remain the Amerks, Hershey, Providence, and Springfield. They've been on the bus all of my life.


- RKB boltonsRus@gmail.com ..