Steve Donner’s Thoughts on Lease Drama and HOF night

March 8, 2017 - By

Over the past week many of us have come to realize that while PSE may be using the media to leverage a better lease and renovation deal, there also is real sense that we could possibly lose our beloved Amerks. I thought it would be useful and interesting to chat with former Amerks owner and Calder Cup champion Steve Donner and get his thoughts on everything transpiring. No matter your feelings on Steve Donner, few people have the insight, experience, successes and failures with all of this than he does. He is very much up to date on Amerks news and we even discussed the recent excellent HOF class of Kevin Oklobzija and Scotty Nichol.

I thank Steve for taking time out of his busy schedule in Florida that includes running & renovating his rink (for a new Juniors team) and working to get his pork/beef (Abe’s Finest Meats) hots into a difficult market that currently favors all beef hots.

Steve Donner owned the Amerks from 1995 until 2008 which included the 1996 Calder Cup championship. He also started the Rochester Knighthawks in 1994, was a part owner of the Rochester Rhinos soccer team and part owner of the Rochester Rattlers outdoor lacrosse team. Between those four teams he was a part of eight championships. That’s a quick recap of what he accomplished to give some insight into why we value his thoughts.

This was a casual, friendly chat so Donner’s comments and insight and my reactions are shown below in more of a notes format. In spite of this format, I hope you find this enjoyable and informative.

My thoughts:

As the chat with Donner ended, he talked about the team needing to make BIG noise to get covered. Well, these rumors are creating that, so maybe this could be a blessing in disguise. At least we’re talking about the Amerks and hearing people say how much they mean to the community. Our season is fading out to another string of meaningless March games, while our city’s sports fans and newspaper – which for the first time lacks a regular Amerks beat reporter – send their attention 90 miles away to amateur basketball players instead of their own city’s 60 year-plus tradition. A lesson that Syracuse, Bingo and Utica learned the hard way seems destined to be our fate – that upstate winter weekends lack something special when the trials and tribulations of its city’s hockey clubs no longer play out on the ice and in the next day’s paper. Pride, tradition and the triumphs we’ve missed celebrating so badly – they all seem to be a devalued currency in our city.

Here’s the thing… everything Steve Donner fought for in the 90’s when he bought the team (when the Sabres needed to divest us to finance Marine Midland Arena) he did because he cared about the Crest. It doesn’t seem like anyone cares now – our owner, the media or our city. Our pride and history has been deemed worthless the last decade.
I have mixed and variables feelings and opinions on this. There is even part of me that thinks the City should be exploring other options as well; reaching out the AHL and other NHL teams – our city plays a critical role in the history of professional hockey! The bottom line for me is this: The Amerks are Rochester’s team regardless of who the current owner is.

If we weren’t owned by a multi-billionaire (and someday that will again be the case) we’d need a lease deal providing more revenue streams, we’d need more media support and more fan support. So while it’s more than reasonable to expect Mr. Pegula to help financially with all of this considering he IS the owner, does have the means and makes investments just down the thruway – ultimately we need a better situation, including arena, to keep Amerks hockey in Rochester. Out of everything Mr. Donner said, I think the comment that most sticks with me is about needing everyone to work together.

Notes on the moving situation:

  • “It’s a serious and deteriorating situation that needs attention. The City, the media, the fans, and PSE all need to work together to make it work.”
  • He noted that social media brings more attention to this and in different ways.
  • He finds it “interesting and maybe surprising” that PSE didn’t want to bid on managing BCA but he said “PSE thinks big”. Running the BCA in its current condition is probably not all that attractive and he isn’t sure but maybe they are quietly looking at building their own arena.
  • With much discouragement in his voice he remarked that PSE might not understand the sentiment of our market – even after 6 years. “This could be playing out much better.”
  • Seems that PSE doesn’t realize what an asset this could be for them BUT The City has to show they really want the team. “This franchise is a treasure. Does either side realize this?”
  • He believes that the Sabres need to be attentive and The City needs to be flexible and responsive, which it appears they might attempting to be after “historically being slow to respond.”
  • Multiple people have dealt with The City and now we’re seeing frustration bringing us to this point.
  • “PSE has been patient up until now with the short term leases.”
  • I complained about Pegula buying a warehouse for 7 million in Buffalo but not ponying up anything here, to which Donner responded: “BUT at the end of the day he (Pegula) OWNS that warehouse.”
  • While admitting the Pegula’s “are not the Knox’s” – he reminded me that Kim is from here and he believes they would prefer to be in Rochester.
  • He cautions that Terry is used to having his way and not used to working with a city like Rochester where “sports teams don’t get their way.”
  • He believes Pegula wants a bigger say. “He wants to be involved in the front end of input not just the back end.” He went on to say that he, himself, wasn’t able to get a huge say in the 90’s renovation “until 11th hour”. “The City could take advantage of me but can’t take advantage of PSE.” He just didn’t have as “big of a voice” as PSE does.
  • One of the better points he made during our 80 minute chat was that when you renovate an arena – you need a budget for continuing renovation. Different parts of a building age at different times with the renovating approach.
  • Donner’s keys on why Rochester was a great spot for Buffalo’s prospects: History/The winning/Media and fan scrutiny holding team and players accountable/Strong management+ownership/Close location.
  • He wisely advised: “It never hurts to take a look outside the market.”
  • However, he doesn’t feel that any of the options I mentioned as being explored are better development wise – especially Albany. “Penn State might be – a shiny new building and all”. We then wondered about it possibly being in Hershey’s territory but after looking into it the market rule is 70 miles and Penn State to Hershey is about 100.
  • “PSE thinks BIG – this is going to be about providing a good environment”. And that includes facilities, crowds and media support.
  • We discussed about taking the Amerks for granted and how cities like Utica and Binghamton have already learned the hard way. “We wouldn’t know completely the Amerks impact on the community until they were gone.”
  • I mentioned the possibility of the Sabres moving the team BUT leaving the name and the Rangers coming in to save us…he laughed and said “they are the one other team who maybe could work here”. I also asked him if the city should be looking at other options. “It depends on how the conversations have really been going. I would if it was me in the Mayor’s office but best solution is for both parties to work it out.:”
  • He feels something could be worked out to keep the name if a move was made… “always a way”. He mused about leveraging the Bills/Sabres market importance here and not wanting to alienate THAT fanbase.
  • His gut feeling about the on ice performance from following the team and listening to my complaints: “Sounds like a culture issue”. He also didn’t shy away from blaming poor on-ice performance for being partially responsible for the declining state of the franchise – “and Buffalo shares responsibility in that”.
  • When I complained about the Amerks still not having their own GM he agreed it is puzzling and agreed with my assertion that the GM job here is a lot of work. “Jody has been underutilized”. He remarked how Jody was more valuable than even we realized. He mentioned as a new example (to me) how instrumental he was in helping Jason Pominville make it to NHL. “He could have been a 3 and out guy if not for Jody”.

About HOF night and media coverage:

  • On Scotty Nichol: “Repped what the Amerks…. USED to be. Heart as big as a lion”. Boxie called his NHL career… said if he could “sustain the physicality” he could make it. “Pure determination”. Mentioned the season ending injuries and the 6 years here…then off to IHL before making it to the NHL. I mentioned he’s the kind of attitude the organization needs now, and he agreed and referenced some of Nichol’s great induction speech.
  • On KevinO: “Even knowing that the newspaper business is in tough shape doesn’t make this any less shocking. Major league writer, reporter and guy. Honest, great contacts. Covered and knew every nuance about the team.”
  • “Without him, the team is much less relevant – and that’s a signal to the entire community. The media here used to try and out do each other in covering the Amerks. This is a further erosion of the team – and it’s not good for the players or the organization as a whole.” I commented that the sports media here had really done a disservice to local teams by focusing on SU and Buffalo and he acknowledged this has been an issue for a long time…also agreeing that there were a plethora of SU grads working here.
  • At this point, the team is really going to need to make “BIG noise to get any coverage”.

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