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Appert takes over Amerks

COVID-19 has affected most aspects of American life, including professional sports.  

The 2019-2020 American Hockey League season was rolling along in March when play was suspended, then cancelled. It was going especially well for the Rochester Amerks, who were thirteen games over .500 at the time.

Pinpointing an exact time to return now depends on the grip the coronavirus has over the world. Can the league safely resume play in time to salvage a 2021 season? It thinks it can and is planning a February 5 return, subject to ever-changing COVID conditions and restrictions.     

However, this is not something new Amerks coach, Seth Appert, and his staff can worry about. “I’m a big believer in focusing on the things I can control,” says Appert. COVID, league protocol, and ownership protocol aren’t things within his control. When it comes to the Buffalo Sabres organization that oversees the Rochester Americans, however, there are some clear goals and expectations Appert will have to control to be successful.

Readying players to step in or stay in Buffalo is a big one. Winning games is a coaching standard expectation anywhere. An AHL coach has the added task of an unstable lineup. 

Players from all over the world can be found in the AHL. They can get there through the NHL player draft, in season promotions and demotions, NHL player injury rehab, new player signings, and more.

The good old days

Unfortunately for fans of the old days, rosters change quickly, and, for the most part, players don’t spend multiple seasons in Rochester. There’s almost an ongoing experiment to keep finding players that could help in Buffalo or to get noticed anywhere in the NHL. It’s also an experiment for rule changes the NHL wants to make. Three-on-three overtime started here.

For a player to remain here three years is an eternity now, says former longtime Democrat & Chronicle Amerks beat writer, Kevin Oklobzija. That makes it hard for kids to identify with players like Jody Gage, aka “Mr. Amerk,” who thrilled Amerks fans from 1985 to 1996. Appert says player turnover doesn’t mean the team can’t have a great relationship with new and old fans, however. 

The game has changed, but there is a positive side to the changing roster. Fans can see Amerks and AHL players in person one night and on national television the next. The vast majority of NHL players have spent time in the AHL.  

On the ice the skill level is much greater than ever before. “Craziness describes the speed of the game now,” Oklobzija says. 

The longtime broadcast voice of the Amerks, Don Stevens, agrees. “There is so much talent out there now. It just keeps getting better and better.” 

Stevens says the way players approach the game today is much different than in the past. “The mentality of the game has changed. It’s a much more educated or cerebral player than it used to be,” he says. Players are more concerned about nutrition, the science of fitness, and their mental focus.  

Appert’s past and present

Appert comes to the Amerks from the college ranks, where he coached at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Albany for eleven years and in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program since 2017.

It’s his first foray into the professional ranks, but his peers include close friends like Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Blashill and Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams.

Appert, forty-six, was a goaltender in his college days at Ferris State University in Michigan but didn’t play pro hockey. To get that connection, he wanted assistant coaches who did play pro and who had to work hard to get to the NHL much like Amerks players have to. His assistant coach choices, Adam Mair and Mike Webber, are former Buffalo Sabres who had that work ethic.

Appert will also get to see players he formerly coached for and against. “It’s always fun to get the opportunity to see the success they’re having and where they’re at now,” he says. 

Appert replaces popular former Amerks’ coach and player, Chris Taylor, who was let go when Buffalo named Kevyn Adams general manager in June.

“It’s understandable and not uncommon when there are changes at the top,” Stevens says. Adams wants his own people in positions such as the Amerks coach.

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for Chris Taylor,” Appert says. “I know what he meant to the city and to the organization but this is pro sports and these things happen a lot in pro sports. I need to be the best version of who I am for our prospects and our players, for the city of Rochester, and for the Buffalo Sabres.”  

Fans should be pleased the cupboard isn’t bare in the Sabres organization despite the Sabres inability to make the playoffs since 2011. Even with change, there will still be familiar names fans can identify with in the lineup. 

What he expects

There are basic tenets a Seth Appert-led team must have.

“First of all, I want a team mentality, a love and respect for each other and for the organization that they play for. That’s critical for success in life not just as a team. You need to care about each other. You need to be fully invested in each other. That team mentality is very important to me. I’m a real believer in positive energy so I want players that are energy drivers and energy givers,” Appert says

Fighting in pro hockey continues to decline, an aspect not all fans embrace. But, Appert says his teams will be physical.

“It’s still important to take care of your teammates and let opponents know we cannot be taken advantage of,” Coach Appert says. “The hallmarks of my teams are that they’re together, they’re passionate, and they’re competitive. Those are things I believe in at a high level.”

Appert has scouted the upstate New York area for enough years to know he’s excited to be a part of it, an area he says has a high quality of life and people of substance. As a lifelong baseball and Minnesota Twins fan, Appert is looking forward to a Red Wings game if and when time allows. His brother Luke made it to AAA pro baseball. 

The new Amerks coach hopes he doesn’t face the same fate the Red Wings did in 2020, which is a virus-caused season cancellation. In the COVID era anything and everything is possible regarding a schedule, and Appert says the team will just have to adjust accordingly as will every other team in the AHL.   

Until the league and ownership say it’s safe to play, Appert will remain at his home in Plymouth, Michigan.

“I have a lot of faith in our leadership to make sure that whenever we start our season, we’re doing so in a manner that is safe for our staff and for our players,” he says.

It helps that the Pegulas own the Bills, Sabres, and Amerks, and ownership is learning how to cope with the pandemic through their experience with the Bills. 

“We’re fortunate that we’re one of few franchises that have a connection to another major pro sport that is going through this and we can learn from the successes and mistakes that have been made,” Appert says.

After everything the city of Rochester and the nation have been through with the pandemic, the return of live pro sports at Blue Cross Arena promises to be a welcome relief.  

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