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Beating the bush 

It looks hopeless. The Sherbrooke Canadiens trounce the visiting Amerks 6-1 in game five of the 1987 Calder Cup Finals, and lead the best-of-seven series 3-2. The Canadiens are in the zone, the Amerks in the toilet. They lost consecutive games --- one at the War Memorial --- by a 13-4 margin. It's time to surrender.

            But Amerks player-coach Don Lever won't accept that. The 34-year-old forward hasn't seen much team success during a 15-year career. His clubs never made the finals before. They hardly ever made the playoffs.

            Lever tells his teammates they will go to Rochester, win game six, and then go back to Sherbrooke to win the Calder Cup. Nothing seems more ridiculous.

            Fast-forward to 2004, the first round of the American Hockey League playoffs. Rochester recovers from a 3-1 series deficit against rival Syracuse to win game seven in overtime on the road. It's among the most thrilling playoff series victories in team history.

            The Amerks use that momentum to sweep Hamilton, last year's Calder Cup finalists, in round two. They hadn't won in Hamilton all season, but impressively take the series' first two games at Copps Coliseum. Goalie Ryan Miller is remarkable, allowing just three goals during the four games.

            Rochester is four wins away from the Calder Cup Finals, and has won seven straight games, its longest winning streak this season.

There is sometimes nothing more compelling than minor-league playoffs. Money is not the players' prime motivator, because they generally make very little. Young players, driven to reach the top, play hard to showcase themselves. Veterans, such as Lever, play hard because they don't have many more chances to be champions.

            There's an animal-like hunger, a desperation rarely seen in the majors, where exiting the playoffs means waking up the next day in a million-dollar home and driving the Ferrari to the country club.

            That's simplistic, but not without merit. As 24-year-old Red Wings shortstop Jason Bartlett said last week: "It would be hard to get too down after losses when you're making the kind of money they're making."

            In the minors, there's effort for effort's sake and a competitive wholesomeness --- the ideals the NCAA advertises. Players basically play because they love their sport.

            That's why many prefer NCAA competitions to major pro sports. The NCAA sells out its football and men's basketball championships, and secures billion-dollar TV contracts. Ironically, the AHL, exhibiting the same principles, doesn't average more than 3,518 fans per playoff game as of May 10. There were 709 people at an April 18 Cleveland Barons playoff game vs. Toronto.

            Even the Rochester Brigade averaged more.

            Evidently, not many people care. One key reason is that they can watch any number of major-league sports on TV these days. They no longer have to go to the ballpark or arena to get their fix.

            The majors have eclipsed the minors. Consequently, the minors emphasize the experience and affordability of watching their games in person. They have post-game fireworks and in-game promotions to draw people. They've given little thought to promoting the players, mostly because they feel their rosters are so transitory, fans won't be interested in getting to know players who might be somewhere else within two years. Indirectly, the front offices diminish the on-field product's importance.

            But if NCAA Division I football and men's basketball are so popular serving as NFL and NBA minor leagues, isn't it reasonable to think traditional minor league sports and their players might capture people's interest too?

            Minor league shouldn't mean bush league. My hope is that the promotional efforts don't erode to the point of resembling that scene in This is Spinal Tap when the band sees a marquee before a concert and finds it's getting second billing to a puppet show.

In '87, Don Lever promised the Amerks would go back to Sherbrooke and win the Calder Cup after two blowouts. Amid little hope, they beat the Canadiens 7-4 in game six and 4-2 in game seven.

            ESPN didn't report it, but this is the type of story only the minor leagues produce: Athletes, young and old, banding together to win for accomplishment's sake. That's what's happening with this year's Amerks, too, as they pursue the franchise's seventh Calder Cup.

            There is little in sport more glorious, and the stories deserve to be told --- not eclipsed by fireworks, promotions, or even puppet shows.

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