From NYHJ: Amerks' Knapp savors on-the-job training
by David Satriano/NYHJ Writer
Editor's Note: Connor Knapp was assigned to the ECHL's Greenville Road Warriors Feb. 9, after New York Hockey Journal went to press.
The NHL lockout has come and gone. The top AHL players were called up to their big clubs for training camp, and for the lucky ones, the start of the NHL season.
Rochester Amerks goalie Connor Knapp (York, N.Y.) wasn’t among those invited to Sabres training camp, but his future certainly looks bright.
Knapp, 22, grew up about 50 miles from Buffalo, and 33 miles from where he went to school and now plays, in Rochester. And growing up with older brothers who played hockey pretty much sealed his fate from an early age.
“I got into hockey because my two older brothers played, and I managed to play hockey with my older brother when he started playing and he really liked it,” Knapp said. “I would go to his games and stuff, so we kind of started playing floor hockey, knee hockey and street hockey in the driveway, and then just kind of decided. It was between basketball and hockey for me, and I went with hockey. Ever since then it’s been the main sport in my life.”
Growing up in western New York also influenced his decision, as it is a hockey hotbed. The Sabres are the only NHL team close, but the AHL has five upstate teams — Rochester, Albany, Binghamton, Syracuse and Adirondack.
“Hockey is a big deal in western New York. It gets a lot of attention,” said Knapp. “We have the Sabres and the Americans, and it’s a sport that I was pretty serious about from an early age, so it helped that I was in an area where a lot of people took it seriously, too. I think that had a definite impact on me wanting to play hockey.”
At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, Knapp has the build of a rugged forward or towering defenseman. But he chose to play goalie, a position not known for guys his size. The two goalies he looked up to — Dominik Hasek (6-foot-1, 165 pounds) and Patrick Roy (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) — weren’t as big as him, but Roy has since been elected to the Hall of Fame and Hasek certainly will be as soon as he is eligible.
“I remember when Dallas played Buffalo in the Stanley Cup Finals (in 1999); I got to watch (Ed) Belfour and Hasek,” said Knapp. “And now, I kind of like goalies who are more similar to me, goalies like Mike Smith (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and Pekka Rinne (6-foot-5, 205 pounds), because they are big guys and I can kind of mimic their style of play.”
Knapp posted a 22-1 record with a 1.66 goals-against average in his first season in the EJHL playing for the Boston Junior Bruins. The next season, he was 14-7-2 with a 2.02 GAA and three shutouts. Next came college — Miami University in Ohio, and though he put up good numbers as a freshman, Knapp was still was surprised when he got drafted that summer in the fifth round (134th overall) by the Sabres.
“It was unexpected, for sure,” he said. “I wasn’t even sure if I was going to get drafted. So it was really exciting to be drafted by Buffalo, being so close. Then when they came under new ownership (in 2011) everyone started talking about the possibility of buying Rochester and making them the farm team again, and I was really excited about that when I was in school. It was definitely a motivator to make an AHL team out of college and to play in Rochester.”
Knapp playing for four seasons at Miami, compiling a 46-22-11 record with 13 shutouts. The Redhawks made the NCAA tournament all four years he was there, including losing a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to Boston University in the 2009 national championship game. Knapp didn’t play in the tournament that season, yielding to Cody Reichard, but he did the following year when his team made it to the Frozen Four, losing in the semifinals.
“The first year, I didn’t play in the tournament,” he said. “The second year, I did. The third year, I didn’t, and the fourth year, I did. So it was kind of an alternating schedule, but my time at Miami was great. I couldn’t have asked for a better college experience. It was tough to be done there, for sure. … It was up and down all four years with the goaltending situation because (Reichard and I) were in the same grade, but I think it made both of us better for it.”
Knapp was signed to a tryout with the Amerks in April and made his debut earlier this season. The third start was the charm, as he earned his first professional win, making 41 saves in a 3-1 win over Adirondack.
“It was a relief first and foremost because I was, I think, 0-2 at the time, and kind of almost had one locked up in my first game and let it slip away,” he said. “So it was a relief at first and excitement. It was pretty emotional because I had a lot of family there. The game was one where I really contributed to the team.”
He dropped three straight decisions after that and had a 1-5 record, a 3.37 GAA and a .897 save percentage at the AHL All-Star break, playing second fiddle to David Leggio, himself a western New York product from Williamsville. But he knows it’s a long season, and Knapp has the support and encouragement of his teammates, including one of the Sabres’ most recent call-ups from Rochester, forward Marcus Foligno (Buffalo, N.Y.).
“Marcus was great. I’ve known him for quite a while from going to development camps with him and stuff,” said Knapp. “He is a really great guy in the locker room. It was good to have a young guy like that similar to my age and a guy that I knew on the team.”
Knapp also has former Vezina Trophy winner and Sabres starting goalie Ryan Miller in his corner. He hopes one day to start for the Sabres and be as successful as Miller has been.
“I’ve skated with Jhonas (Enroth, the Sabres’ backup goalie). He was actually in development camp with me one or two years and I met Ryan Miller for the first time this summer, when we were skating in Buffalo,” said Knapp. “Both great guys, which I expected. I think I talked a lot with Miller; we talked quite a bit about the lockout. I think the biggest thing was just watching them play, and how they prepare and how they go about their training in the summer is a good reflection of their play during the year … so I think it was a great experience seeing those guys and being on the ice with them this summer.”
When his number does get called to the NHL ranks, Knapp will be sure to savor the moment. He hopes it comes as a member of the Sabres, the team he grew up watching come so close to a Stanley Cup victory some 14 years ago.
“Obviously, every hockey player thinks about it, whether they’re playing in the AHL or just starting out, but for sure I’ve thought about it. When it comes, it will probably be a whole new level of emotions and it would just be awesome to be able to put on the Sabres uniform and play a game for Buffalo. It would just be a dream come true.”