Nathan Paetsch has suited up for just 11 games with the Rochester Americans this season.
The stat line for the 16-year veteran won’t turn a single head: one goal, two assists for three points with two minutes in penalties. He has yet to play against the Toronto Marlies in the first-round of the Calder Cup playoffs.
But the 36-year-old Nathan Paetsch the Forgotten Amerk? Nothing is farther from the truth.
When it comes to being a veteran presence in the locker room, assisting coaches Chris Taylor, Gord Dineen and Toby Petersen in helping players young and old get their games right, nobody does it better.
When it comes to being out in the community as a tireless ambassador for the club, nobody is more visible.
And when it comes to showing others what accountability means, how we’re not defined by our mistakes but how we rebound from them, nobody sets a finer example than Paetsch. A man who rebuilt his life and career after a 2015 conviction for his role in an illegal gambling operation in Rochester that had the makings of an HBO series.
“He’s become an extension of us, which is what we want,’’ said Taylor, whose team trails the Marlies 2-0 in games heading into Wednesday’s must-win Game 3 and will need Paetsch’s calming influence to save the season. “It takes a lot of character to play his role. He’s not playing a lot, but he just works even harder and that’s the kind of guy we want our young guys learning from.’’
And it’s the kind of guy an organization wants representing it in public.
A genuine person who understands the impact a professional athlete can have on other people’s lives. Who understands a playing career doesn’t last forever, but good deeds can have a lasting effect.
“One-hundred percent he’s our go-to guy,’’ said Warren Kosel, Amerks director of public and media relations. “He makes our job that much easier because he’s so willing to do things where guys in the past maybe not so much. There isn’t one thing we’ve presented to him that he’s said no to, in fact, he usually asks ‘How can we make it better?’ I’ve never had a player more willing to help.’’
The term “bend over backwards’’ was invented for guys like Paetsch, who recently won his fourth McCulloch Trophy and his second consecutive Amerks IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his contributions, commitment and dedication to the Rochester community.
His community service schedule was so busy this season, Paetsch could’ve used his own secretary. A sampling, and we’re probably missing something:
Volunteer at Seneca Park Zoo; volunteer with Meals on Wheels; deliver season tickets to corporate partners; greet fans at games as part of Amerks Captain’s Club program; read to kids at library through Amerks Power Play reading program; speak to kids about dental hygiene through Fidelis Care; visit hospitals and nursing homes during the holidays; be an interview subject for Amerks Junior Reporter program; play ball hockey with those living with disabilities through Lifetime Assistance; speak with youth teams about making right choices; speak with officers from the Rochester Police Department and Monroe County Sheriff’s Department about nefarious activities that can snare professional athletes.
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Is that all?
“It’s a huge honor, obviously,’’ said Paetsch, a former AHL all-star who cherishes the McCulloch and Man of Year awards more because of what they stand for. “A lot of the guys take pride in getting out in the community and helping. There’s so much support for us as hockey players, for the Rochester Americans, it’s the least we can do. When you get out in the community, interact with people, you come to understand how many outstanding individuals there are out there, countless people who dedicate hours and hours to others, so it’s very inspiring to me.’’
Paetsch’s personal story continues to inspire, his tale an important one for young athletes to know.
Growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada where gambling is legal, Paetsch always thought of poker and sports betting as pastimes, not crimes.
Like many pro hockey players, a game of cards on a long bus ride or a friendly wager on a game other than their own with a teammate was a way to fuel a competitive edge when not on the ice.
Unfortunately for Paetsch, he became a cog in a multi-million dollar offshore gambling enterprise based out of a restaurant and bar in Rochester’s Charlotte neighborhood that was busted in a series of raids in June 2014. The government alleged that during one two-year period the ring took in $70 million in wagers.
Paetsch, who was accused of recruiting hockey players and others to place bets, pleaded guilty to two gambling-related crimes and paid a hefty price: 400 hours of community service, eight months house arrest (he was allowed to play hockey with the Grand Rapids Griffins at the time), and $265,000 in restitution which he chipped away at using equity in his Spencerport home, a Florida cottage and a BMW.
Former Amerks and Buffalo Sabres teammate Thomas Vanek was one of the players who placed bets with the group, but no evidence ever surfaced that hockey players bet on hockey. Three ring leaders with long histories as bookies with possible mob ties received sentences ranging from nine years in prison to a whopping $1.2-million fine.
“You’ve got to work at how to pick better friends,” U.S. District Judge Frank Geraci, Jr., told Paetsch at his sentencing.
He took the judge’s words to heart.
Even before his sentencing, Paetsch was speaking to high school and college players and telling them what to expect if they make the pro ranks.
How people will want to befriend them “and sometimes their intentions aren’t what you think they are.’’
All vices can derail a career, but sports leagues take gambling very seriously as even the perception can cut to the integrity of their product. Strangers who meet pro athletes immediately start thinking money and the possibilities.
“As a pro athlete, you live under a microscope and certain things that are OK in some circles aren’t OK here,’’ Paetsch said. “You have to be very careful how you handle yourself, you can be a target and you need to make good decisions.
“Everyone is going to want to be your friend whether it’s the National Hockey League or whatever else,’’ Paetsch added. “The biggest thing is to put yourself in the right situations. Sometimes you can just be there and something bad can happen to you. But putting yourself into those situations where something bad can happen, whether you initiated it or not, that’s on you. That’s your responsibility.’’
He is forever grateful to the people in Grand Rapids who didn’t turn their backs on him, people like coach Jeff Blashill and Detroit Red Wings assistant GM Ryan Martin.
Paetsch and agent Steve Bartlett of Pittsford were forthcoming through the entire process and Paetsch’s spotless record and contrition were evident.
So, after winning one Calder Cup with the Griffins in 2013, Paetsch led another in 2017 as team captain.
“The people in Grand Rapids stuck their necks out and re-signed me after all this came out,’’ Paetsch said. “I was very honest and forthright with them. They knew that it’s not really who I am. It was an unfortunate situation and something I should not have been involved in. But I have so many people to thank in that organization. They were my bosses, but during that time, they were really just friends. I don’t know where I’d be without people like that who supported me.’’
Taking a gamble on Paetsch two seasons ago was not difficult for Taylor and Sabres GM Jason Botterill, who were out to rebuild the farm system. They knew their former Rochester teammate would embrace the role of veteran mentor. A person proud to wear the Amerks shield again.
Paetsch turned pro with Rochester in 2003-04 and developed into a team MVP and all-star two seasons later. He was part of the great ’04-05 squad that set a franchise record with 112 points and was the last Rochester team to win a playoff series. He would go on to play four seasons with the Sabres.
“First and foremost, personally, he’s a good friend of mine and a great teammate,’’ Taylor said. “I know what kind of character he has. It was tough what happened to him and his family, but people make mistakes and we wanted to give him an opportunity to not just learn by those mistakes, but also help our young guys develop. He’s helped turn the culture around here and I knew he’d do that. I’m very proud of him. It’s not easy, especially being back here where it all happened. But he faced it head on.’’
Showing a different kind of courage than merely blocking shots or throwing checks.
Paetsch has made Rochester his permanent home. He and his wife, Jaclyn, have two children, Kellen, 8, and Mira, 6, and Jaclyn’s large extended family. Nathan helps coach Kellen’s Rochester Monarchs’ mite team.
Rehashing the details of 2014 and 2015, reliving the headlines, isn’t something Paetsch sees as productive.
“We finally feel we can breathe again,’’ he said. “It would be hard to truly explain what we went through.’’
Instead, Nathan Paetsch comes to the rink each day with a winning attitude, learning all he can about coaching and a possible future behind the bench. Giving back. And being grateful.
“Like any huge learning experience, you can make excuses and blame somebody else and not grow from it,’’ he said. “Or you can take something positive from it and grow as a human being. I decided to work twice as hard at what I did and try to work twice as hard at helping other people and become the person I wanted to be and thought I was. That other stuff clouded my judgment. Now I feel like I am that person I want to be instead of not being all the way there.’’
Calder Cup playoffs
Game 1: Toronto 4, Rochester 1
Game 2: Toronto 3, Rochester 2 (OT).
Game 3: at Toronto, 7 p.m., Wednesday, April 24.
Game 4: at Toronto, 7 p.m., Friday, April 26, if necessary.
Game 5: at Rochester, 5:05 p.m., Sunday April 28, if necessary.
Where to listen, watch
Radio: 95.7 FM and 950 AM ESPN Rochester. TV: AHLTV offers all-playoff game access for $24.99 and daily playoff game access for $7.99. Also, MSG Network will carry Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment’s live broadcast of Game 3 and Game 4 (if necessary) from Toronto’s Coca-Cola Coliseum. SMG subscribers in both the Buffalo and Rochester markets can see the games.