By Kevin Oklobzija
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – As a kid growing up in Rochester, Sam Paolini Sr. loved every minute of being at a Rochester Americans game, especially warmups.
He’d wander down from his family’s seats in the upper level and find a place along the old chicken wire to get as close to the pre-game action as possible.
“I used to have my nose up against the fence for warmups,” Paolini said. “I just loved the sound of the skates and the puck hitting the sticks.”
Tonight he’ll have his nose pasted up against the acrylic glass at Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial to watch his son skate with the Amerks.
Sam Paolini Jr. signed a tryout contract with the Amerks on Tuesday and played his first two games for his hometown team in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He scored a goal in his first game, a 4-2 loss to the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, then was used sparingly in Wednesday’s 3-1 victory.
“I think it was good to play on the road for the first game so I could get some of the jitters out,” said Paolini Jr., the Cornell University graduate who has played for the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies in the ECHL.
“But I can’t wait to play a game in front of the fans I grew up being a part of.”
Many of those fans will be family and friends.
He attended school in Spencerport and developed his skills in the Rochester Youth Hockey program.
He wore the Amerks crest for youth hockey teams but on Tuesday he put it on for a real American Hockey League game.
“When I pulled that sweater over my head, I thought of all the guys who had worn that jersey when I was growing up,” Paolini said. “I felt very proud to wear it.”
He’ll wear it again proudly tonight when the Amerks play the Grand Rapids Griffins at 7:35 p.m. But it won’t be his first regular-season AHL game in Rochester. On Dec. 23 he played as an emergency fill-in against the Amerks for the Cleveland Barons, recording an assist in 3-0 win.
Playing for the Amerks might actually be easier than getting to them. When he was informed of the callup on Monday, he and his father spent several frantic hours trying to get him onto the Amerks flight from Toronto to St. John’s. The younger Paolini initially was to fly from Philadelphia to Toronto. But without his passport, the airline wouldn’t let him board the plane.
While Dad scrambled to get the passport, Sam Jr. flew to Buffalo. His father picked him up and headed up the Queen Elizabeth Way for the Pearson Airport in Toronto, thankful the Ontario Provincial Police don’t steadfastly enforce the 100-kilometer-per-mile speed limit.
“We got there at 12:50 for a 1:30 flight,” Sam Sr. said. “He gave me a hug and a kiss and headed for the flight and I just stood there shaking.”
“I thought about getting on the 3:30 flight with the clothes I had on, figuring I might never see him in an Amerk sweater,” Dad said. “All the following around we’ve done (as a family to see Sam Jr. play) and I miss his first goal.”
He’ll perhaps have a chance to see another this weekend. With left wingers Jason Botterill (separated shoulder) and Jason Dawe (strained groin) still out, right winger Sean McMorrow suspended and center Chris Taylor on recall to the Buffalo Sabres, Paolini will be needed. His skating is below average for the AHL, but he’s certainly not out of place.
“Sam has a real knack around the net,” Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth said. “Where there are deficiencies, there are guys that have the heart to overcome.”