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Amerks became 'family,' established winning culture under Taylor

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

It was a simple question, but one that left Linus Ullmark searching for an answer nonetheless. Much of that had to do with the timing - the Rochester Americans had just been swept in their first-round series against the Syracuse Crunch, a premature conclusion to their first postseason run in four years.

In the dressing room after the game, Ullmark was asked to describe what had been like to play with a group that described itself as 'special' so often this season. The goaltender, defined as much by his optimism as his skill in net, smiled. His eyes began to well. He began to speak, then stopped to take a deep breath. 

"It's been fun. It's been real fun," was all he said before stopping again to regain his composure, eventually asking to move to the next question. His silence in that moment spoke volumes about the disappoint he felt for how the Amerks' season had ended. It said even more about what had gone right in Rochester over the previous eight months. 

Ullmark explained his emotion when he spoke again less than 48 hours later, this time during his exit interview with the media at Blue Cross Arena. It was not only the product of defeat, he said, but also the realization that their group had likely played its last game together. 

Watch: Youtube Video

Chris Taylor saw that same sentiment expressed time and time again as players filtered through his 
office for exit meetings that day. His takeaway from it all?

"We were a family," Taylor said. "And it's tough for a team to break up like that."

The branches on this family tree extend back more than a decade, to when Taylor and Jason Botterill were veteran players in Rochester helping to cultivate a young core that would go on to reach back-to-back Conference Finals in the NHL. 

Botterill made winning in Rochester a top priority upon being hired as general manager of the Sabres last May, giving the Amerks their own dedicated GM in Randy Sexton. They hired Taylor to be their coach and then brought in former Amerks Kevin Porter and Nathan Paetsch to be their leaders on the ice. 

Ullmark, entering his third season in Rochester, could tell right away that the stakes were raised. 

"We knew that we also had to step up," he said. "There were no days off. Those guys that came in, they really showed that this is what it takes to be a winning team."

What Paetsch and Porter found upon their arrival was a group of players starving for success, but in need of guidance. They worked to instill winning habits, ranging from gameday preparation and practice habits to the way they treat people at the rink. 

"The guys that were here before were hungry for that," Paetsch said. "Some of the guys who had been here for three years, they were just desperate for that team unity. And they're great kids, they just really wanted it and just didn't know how to go about it. 

"I think it really came together a lot quicker than we had hoped for and that was exciting."

Before long, the bonds in the dressing room grew stronger. Ullmark referred to fellow goaltender Adam Wilcox as his favorite goalie partner ever. When players were called up to Buffalo and spoke to the media, they offered unsolicited praise of the job being done by Porter and Paetsch. 

They began to play - and win - for each other. 

"You want to win with this team," Ullmark said. "You want to win with these players, you want to win with your friends. Like I said before, we were a family, right from the start. And we grew stronger and stronger for every match and practice that went by."

Video: Americans Made: Linus Ullmark

They wanted to win for their coach, too. Taylor - who already coached some of the team's players during his four-year tenure as an assistant in Rochester through the 2015-16 season - made sure the rink was a fun place to be, but was also forthright with his players about where they stood.

Players responded to his honesty. Nicholas Baptiste worked to redefine himself as a dependable two-way player based on conversations he had with Taylor early in the season. Justin Bailey dealt with injuries throughout the year but was a force with his physicality in the postseason.

Video: Americans Made: Chris Taylor

"I've never seen a first-year coach with such a great rapport with the guys," Paetsch said. "He's a real smart guy. Let's be honest, he was the smartest guy when he played so obviously that's why he's such a great coach and the guys loved playing with him. 

"I guarantee you're going to see guys coming back and the quotes in the paper are going to be like, 'I came back because I want to play for Tayls.' And that's huge."

The next step is for the culture change to translate to Buffalo. Botterill has already said that he plans on having Ullmark as one of his two NHL goalies next season. Baptiste, Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson all finished the season playing everyday roles in Buffalo and figure to compete for spots again next season. 

Bailey, Hudson Fasching, Sean Malone, C.J. Smith and Alexander Nylander will look to throw themselves into that mix as well. Meanwhile, a new group of prospects - Rasmus Asplund, Cliff Pu and Victor Olofsson being likely candidates - will arrive in Rochester with a chance to develop in a winning environment. 

Video: Americans Made: Bailey, Baptiste and Fasching

"I think that was a big part of our success this season, was our younger guys noticing how you have to act and how you've got to play as a professional down here and translating that winning culture to Buffalo," Baptiste said. "I think that's a big thing. We've talked about culture a lot here because it's been so great."

"If it doesn't carry up to there, then we're not doing our job right here," Paetsch added. "They're great kids. They're going to do a great job. We're obviously going to lose, you don't know, a handful probably, and that's part of this business. 

"Their time here, I know it was special. They're going to take that with them."

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