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That's life on the farm; Amerks stay afloat with makeshift lineup

Ron Rolston knew he'd work a lot during his first season as a head coach. He just never figured he'd have as much in common with Travelocity's roaming gnome as Lindy Ruff.

The ridiculous run of injures for the Buffalo Sabres has had a landslide effect on their minor-league club in Rochester. The steady stream of Amerks heading to the NHL has forced Rolston to find players from all over the country to fill out his squad.

"It's crazy," Rolston said this week. "Sometimes you think you're more of a travel coordinator, just trying to make things work and get guys in."

The Amerks entered their Christmas break with a makeshift roster that featured four players skating on tryout contracts and another two up from the ECHL. They've competed with an incomplete lineup three times, including a loss Dec. 4 when they were two men short.

"The only team I feel worse for than the Buffalo Sabres because of injuries is the Rochester Americans," said Ted Black, president of both clubs. "It hits them probably even more so. They have their own injury problems, then to worry about our injuries "

"That's our job," Rolston said. "Obviously, this has been very tough for them with the injuries, and we just want to be able to supply them with players that can help them be successful. That's our job, and we understand.

"But we also are competitive, and you want to do well yourself. It's been challenging in the first half, for sure."

Both teams hoped the holiday season would present them with healthy bodies. The Amerks have held their own during the injury plague, going 5-5-2 since late November, but they're ready to have a consistent roster rather than scan for players in Toledo, Trenton and Las Vegas.

"We've just been calling around," said Rolston, who chats with the organization's scouts and contacts coaches at the minor-league, college and junior levels for background information on players. "You try to do as much as you can because we don't want to bring people in that aren't going to add to our team, whether it's play or in the locker room. I think that's vital. You have to bring guys in that are willing to work hard and want to fit in to what we want to do here."

There have been benefits to the madness. Rolston and his new staff, which includes former Sabres Jay McKee and Chris Taylor, have become acquainted while teaching the newcomers. Also, the players have been eager to work and learn because they know the next Buffalo injury might mean a call-up.

"Guys get opportunities that typically wouldn't happen," said Rochester defenseman T.J. Brennan, who played three games for the Sabres. "Your ultimate goal is to be there, so it's good to be there as soon as possible and make a name for yourself. If you take pride in a few little things, especially now with guys getting hurt, you could be there."

The Sabres have summoned a player from Rochester 17 times. They had 11 recalls through this point last year, though most were up only for a game or two compared to the recent extended stays.

"We've been in a situation where they have quite a few of our forwards, they have a defenseman, they've had a goaltender," Rolston said. "That's good in a sense that guys know they're pretty close and say, 'I've got to get better in these areas, and I can be that guy that goes up and gets an opportunity.' "

The chaos has come during a season that is meant to be a celebration. Buffalo and Rochester, affiliated for 29 years before splitting in 2008, are back together under owner Terry Pegula.

"It's been more than we expected," Black said. "Our season-ticket sales have been up something like 70 percent over last year, so fans really have responded well. The reception we have received has been fantastic, and the business community has very, very much welcomed us. I think the fans are excited by the reunification."

The Amerks are averaging 5,027 fans per game, which ranks 13th in the 30-team AHL. While affiliated with the Florida Panthers last season, Rochester drew just 3,872 fans to rank 25th.

It's clear teaming with the Sabres has helped. At Wednesday's 4-1 victory over Lake Erie in Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial, Sabres gear was more prevalent than Amerks garb. Blue and Gold jerseys of Thomas Vanek, Nathan Gerbe, Patrick Kaleta and Ryan Miller dotted nearly every section.

Even the fans in Amerks sweaters showed their Sabres roots, wearing the Rochester jerseys of Miller, Derek Roy and former Buffalo forward Clarke MacArthur.

"It's nice for the fans to follow the young guys going up to Buffalo," said Taylor, the assistant coach who played nine seasons for the Amerks and spent parts of four in Buffalo. "Buffalo's always on TV, and then when you notice guys that actually played here up there just an hour away, it's a marriage made in heaven."

The cities' proximity has helped on those days when the Sabres needed a quick fill-in. There have been a lot. Rolston hopes things calm down so he can hone his coaching skills and not his flight tracking.

"I'm kind of glad in a way because I've grown a lot more through the adversity of what's going on," Rolston said. "You really have to grow and make changes and understand this is probably going to be some of the worst times you have. Getting through this right now and how much it's going to help me as a coach I think you have to look at it optimistically."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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